Our Greatest Want: An Examination of the Rhetorical Tendencies Employed by African American Female Abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)
Date of Award
Bachelor of Arts
You are standing at the doorway of a church in Philadelphia. Looking in, you see a mass of heads, all turned toward the podium, waiting for someone to get behind that podium. Then you see her. She is an attractive African American with “a fair figure, long, lustrous hair, and facial features pleasant to behold” (Logan 49). You overhear one person comment that she looks like “a bronze muse” (Logan 31). A reporter will later write that she has “a strong face, with a shadowed glow upon it, indicative of thoughtful fervor, and of a nature most femininely sensitive, but not in the least morbid. Her form is delicate, her hands daintily small” (Still 779). There is a “captivating eloquence” about her, which tells you she will “hold her audience in rapt attention from the beginning to the close” (Still 779). And, as you soon find out, she does. A man standing by you, who has seen her lecture before, explains: “She is a lady of much talent, and always speaks well, particularly when her subject relates to the condition of her own people, in whose welfare, before and since the war, she has taken the deepest interest. As a lecturer Mrs. Harper is more effective than most of those who come before our lyceums; with a natural eloquence that is very moving” (Still 779). Excited and interested to hear this abolitionist orator for the first time, you enter the hot and stuffy room curious about whether you, too, might become an abolitionist.
You have found your seat, and the fascinating woman takes her place at the podium—signaling that she is about to begin her speech. “She stands quietly beside her desk” (Still 779), and as you wait for her to speak, you notice she has no notes—she is prepared to speak from her brain and her heart—not from a piece of paper. As she calmly begins her speech, you notice that she is “marked by dignity and composure,” her “gestures few and fitting,” her performance “never theatrical” (Still 779). Like thousands of people in hundreds of audiences before and after the one you are in, just in hearing her first few words, you find yourself utterly captivated by this woman: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911).
Frances Harper was, among other accomplishments, an orator during the nineteenth century who devoted her skills to speaking out against injustices of equality. Like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, her more famous counterparts in the abolitionist movement, Harper was a passionate and highly regarded lecturer on abolition. Further, she was one of the select prominent African-American women to undertake this work in such a highly public way. I believe it is important for us to recognize, celebrate and, as far as possible recapture the rhetorical abilities that made Harper and her work as influential as they were.
To that end, my first section is dedicated to defining some of the key abolitionist rhetorical tendencies as exemplified by Douglass and Garrison, most notably, allusion to America’s Declaration of Independence and Revolution, hyperbolic language, and reference to God. After exploring these rhetorical tendencies in Garrison and Douglass, I use my second section to introduce Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, providing biographical information that shows how she came onto the abolitionist circuit. In my third section, I show how Harper follows abolitionist orators like Garrison and Douglass. The fourth and final section, then, is dedicated to exploring the ways that Harper develops her own unique rhetorical tendencies. My aim is to reveal what afforded Harper the ability to capture her audiences, what made her such an interesting orator, and what legacies she has passed on to those who take the public platform in hopes of achieving social or political change today.
Nye, Lauren Deborah, "Our Greatest Want: An Examination of the Rhetorical Tendencies Employed by African American Female Abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)" (2009). English. 1.