As the poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper shows, African American women's literature continued to develop during Reconstruction. But that period was probably the first time in the history of the United States that African American women could count on something besides their pens and the pulpits to initiate their concepts of social change, and as autobiographical accounts and collective biographies such as Gertrude Mossell's The Work of the African American Woman (1894) and Hallie Q. Brown's Homespun Heroines ( 1921) documented later, African American women took advantage of this postbellum opportunity to work individually and collectively in a variety of newly accessible occupations.
Rather than write imaginatively about changes, many of them acted to realize their ideas in more physical fashion. They became professional nurses and teachers and they volunteered to work with refugees and newly freed people. They participated in the temperance movement and they worked for suffrage and equal rights. They established schools and orphanages, and asylums for the aged, the poor, and single women. They did not abandon the Word, but now African American women could meet their audiences face to face in public auditoriums, in schoolrooms, churches, and even, on special occasions, the halls of government.
A steady trickle of poems, essays, and short stories flowed during those years and, for many, journalism made a vital confluence of word and deed. But judging from the texts now extant, African American women were too busy to do much writing in the genres that required sustained concentration and time. Few novels, dramas, or other long texts are known to have been published. Frances Harper did accompany her three early Reconstruction volumes of poetry with a serialized novel, Minnie's Sacrifice (1869), that proselytized for more women activists and Maria W. Stewart contributed a revised Productions in 1879, but it appears that it was not until the end of the eighties that African American women writers took up the longer literary forms in any significant numbers.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a free-born, middle-class, black woman whose tenure at the Watkins Academy had provided her with a more thorough formal education than most nineteenth-century Americans, black or white, male or female.
Frances Harper was convinced that the moment of her political awakening, her "call to duty," was the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act and the subsequent kidnapping of escaped slaves in Northern territory. She recalled that occasion as being a catalyst which defined exactly who, why, and for what she should fight.
Frances E. W. Harper and Sojourner Truth were two women who were very passionate and articulate about equal rights in general and women's rights particularly and who had some success in sharing their opinions on these subjects with whites. Still, as the controversy over Sojourner Truth's addressing the Akron convention illustrates, many of their feminist colleagues vehemently objected to having their movement connected with "abolitionists and niggers." And while Frances Harper's letters describe sharing the podium with white abolitionists, they do not suggest that her Anglo sisters supported her efforts to desegregate the Philadelphia streetcars. In general, during the era of the most fervent social reform, an era that saw the end of slavery and the rise of women's liberation, the color line divided African and Anglo-American women, restricting their occasional cooperation to anti-slavery issues and causing woman's literature with its more diverse interests to develop along separate paths.
Frances E. W. Harper contributed numerous poems and essays that could also be examined in this discussion, but her 1859 short story, "The Two Offers," is the most relevant example.
Frances Watkins Harper was not a superficial writer. Her moral fable moved beyond the either/or to critique three roles that women might assume. Janette is the heroine against which two other women's roles are measured. Laura, the character who most closely resembles the "angel," is like most passive women in woman's fiction, "an anachronism from an earlier time" (Baym, 1978, 28 ). The narrator makes it clear that Laura's inability to cope with the changes that life offered caused her death and that the inadequate development of Laura's "whole nature" caused that inability. The second foil is Laura's mother-in-law, a character who is known in this text only through the behavior of her son. His weakness, we are told, came about because he never learned to distinguish between the appearances of refinement and the truly cultivated life. He had not learned to value common sense over sensibility or high morals over high living. "His father had been too much engrossed in making money, and his mother in spending it, in striving to maintain a fashionable position in society, and shining in the eyes of the world, to give the proper direction to the character of their wayward and impulsive son" (Brighter110). Harper does not blame this materialistic woman entirely for the weaknesses of her son. Both the father and the mother are indicted for failing to provide the proper upbringing to a son who was by nature "wayward and impulsive."
Frances Watkins Harper also writes in accord with white woman's literature when she reveals the "good and bad actions" that precipitated good and bad results as the response to a tripartite problem. First, society offered very restricted roles for women: they could marry and be considered successful or they could remain single and be known as failures. Second, society sanctioned only the development of women's "affectional natures," causing them to trust the "whole wealth of a woman's nature on the frail bark of human love" (Frances Smith Foster, 1990, 109) and leaving them unprepared for adversity and imperfect human conduct. And third, when the inevitable occurred (death, desertion, or other reversal of family fortune), the community condemned those women who could not transcend their training and invent socially acceptable alternatives.
However, Frances Watkins Harper's fiction differs markedly from that of Anglo-American women in several ways: in details of characterization, specific issues that claim attention, and the audience for whom she wrote. In Anglo-American woman's fiction, the heroine may have to support herself and sometimes her dependents, but she is rarely a professional woman by choice. Her professional achievements are subordinated to or substituted for the traditional roles she should have assumed. She supports herself by writing or by teaching, but her true reward is the self-esteem brought by her marriage, motherhood, and happy home.
- Nina Baym, Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870 (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978).
- Frances Smith Foster, A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader, ed. (New York: Feminist Press, 1990)