Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is often overshadowed by figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass in the story about women’s voting rights in the 1860s. Watkins Harper was present during the fateful and divisive 1869 meeting of the American Equal Rights Association when delegates splintered over the question of whether they would support the proposed 15th Amendment, which protected the voting rights of black men, but not women. Delegates charged Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony with having advocated for “educated suffrage,” a position which implied that former slaves were not fit to exercise the vote. Frederick Douglass responded by conceding that women had a stake in the vote, but ultimately deemed their claims less urgent than that of black men for whom voting was “a question of life and death.”
Watkins Harper took the floor, the lone black woman to speak. A teacher, poet and antislavery activist, she somewhat reluctantly supported Douglass: “If the nation could handle one question, she would not have the black women put a single straw in the way, if only the men of the race could obtain what they wanted.”
She also had frank words for white women: “I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be dividedinto three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent.”
Watkins Harper was in the end a political visionary: “We are all bound up in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse of its own soul.” She demanded that black women be included as part of “one great privileged nation.” This was the purpose of the ballot. Sadly, her vision of unity failed, the movement splintered into two competing organizations—The American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association. The rift divided long-standing allies and undercut the possibility for the sort of coalition of which Watkins Harper spoke. For many black women, it was a wound that would never quite heal.