Frances Watkins had her first volume of verse, Forest Leaves, published in 1845 (it has been lost) when she was 20. Her second book, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), was extremely popular. Over the next few years, it was reprinted numerous times. In 1859, her story "The Two Offers" was published in Anglo-African Magazine. She continued to publish poetry and short stories.
She had three novels serialized in a Christian magazine from 1868 to 1888, but was better known for what was long considered her first novel, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892), published as a book when she was 67. Long considered the first novel by an African American, it is one of the earliest. (Discoveries of earlier works by Harriet Jacobson and William Wells Brown have displaced her.) While using the conventions of the time, she dealt with serious social issues, including education for women, passing, miscegenation, abolition, reconstruction, temperance, and social responsibility.
In 1853, Watkins joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and became a traveling lecturer for the group. In 1854, Watkins delivered her first anti-slavery speech on “Education and the Elevation of Colored Race”. The success of this speech resulted a two-year lecture tour in Maine for the Anti-Slavery Society. She traveled, lecturing throughout the East and Midwest from 1856 to 1860.
Frances Watkins Harper was a strong supporter of abolitionism, prohibition and woman's suffrage, progressive causes linked before and after the American Civil War. She was also active in the Unitarian Church, which supported abolitionism. She often read her poetry at the public meetings, including the extremely popular "Bury Me in a Free Land".
She was connected with national leaders in suffrage, and in 1866 gave a moving speech before the National Women's Rights Convention, demanding equal rights for all, including black women.
Harper was active in black organizations. From 1883 to 1890, she helped organize events and programs for the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She helped organize the National Association of Colored Women
Frances Harper died on February 22, 1911.