Frances Harper: Poet, Activist, Mother

Library of Congress

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s portrait from 1872.

Emma Brading '25 and Olivia Nuzzo '25

An impactful abolitionist, suffragist, and talented poet, Frances Harper has been a prominent figure in women’s and African American history. From her famous poems and short stories to her writings in anti-slavery journals, Harper has been known as a talented creative writer, while also earning herself a name as the mother of African American journalism. To add to her many accomplishments, Frances Harper was also the first African American woman to publish a short story. Frances Harper was and remains an influence to all through her hard work, persistence, talent, and impact. 

On September 24, 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland, then Frances Watkins was born. She was born to free African American parents whose names are unknown. Sadly, when Frances was three years old, her parents died, so her aunt and uncle took her in and cared for her. Frances’s uncle, William Watkins, was a major influence in her life through his persistent activism surrounding the abolitionist movement. Frances attended school until she was thirteen years old, then she became a nursemaid for a family. This family happened to own a bookstore, which is what sparked Frances’s love and passion for literature. Then, after working for the family, at twenty-six, Frances became a teacher. Two years later, Frances fully immersed herself in being a public speaker, speaking on anti-slavery and women’s suffrage. Then, in 1860, she married Fenton Harper, becoming the mother to his three children, and also having one daughter with him: Mary. Woefully, Fenton died only four years after Mary was born. This, however, did not slow down Frances in her activism through speeches and her writings. 

In her life, Frances Harper has accomplished more than a few major things. Starting, she wrote her first volume of poems at the age of twenty-one titled Forest Leaves. Later, she would go on to write a second volume called Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. This volume in particular focuses on topics such as anti-slavery and women’s rights. Frances was also the first female teacher at Union Seminary, a school for freed African Americans. She was also recruited by many organizations to share her speeches with the public as a lecturer. Frances also has an impressive record through her published works. Her poem, “Eliza Harris” was published in Frederick Douglas’s Paper, and got her short story, “The Two Offers”, was published in the Anglo-African Magazine. “The Two Offers”,  was not only impactful in its story about women’s rights, but also in the fact it was the first short story published by an African American woman. Harper also contributed to forming the American Woman Suffrage Association and was the co-founder and vice president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club. 

Frances’s legacy lies not only in what she did while alive in the nineteenth century but in her impact on the current day. In her day, she was a major figure in women’s and African American history. Through her poems, stories, articles, and speeches, she heavily influenced the abolitionist movement and women’s suffrage. Today, her works live on by getting her messages about racial and gender equality across in her beautiful writing style. She was a talented and moving author, and she should be regarded as one of the most influential American writers. 

Frances Harper was and remains an influence to all through her hard work, persistence, talent, and impact. Whether it be her lovely yet gripping writings, her persistence through obstacles, or her contributions to America as we know it today, she truly is a Wonder Woman. It is crucial that we never forget this icon and her legacy, so that future generations will be able to appreciate her impact, and all of her hard work is never buried in time.


Works Cited

“‘The Two Offers’ by Frances Watkins Harper – Full Text.” Literary Ladies Guide, 16 June 2020, 

Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” National Women’s History Museum, 

“Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,