August 13, 2014

Women of Doubt: Looking at Ernestine Rose's contribution to feminism, you have to ask why we don't hear more about her.

I am quite gradually learning not to be shocked by the things I don't know.

For instance, when I began my study of figures in doubt, I didn't know that both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were agnostics--even though Stanton was quite an outspoken one. I made it through 12 years of education (10 public, 2 private), and many more years of college than I like to think about, without learning that tidbit.

Thus I suppose I shouldn't be surprised when I don't hear a name like Ernestine Rose...but oh, what a woman!

Let's take a look, shall we?!

Who was Ernestine Rose?

Ernestine was born in Piotrk√≥w Trybunalski, Russia-Poland, on January 13, 1810. 1

Ernstine's father was a "rabbi whose religious duties and scholarly pursuits were supported by the generous dowry of his wife, the daughter of a wealthy businessman."2 This had a unique effect on her upbringing:
As their only offspring, Ernestine received an unusual education for a female child of that time and place, including the study of scriptures in the original Hebrew.2
Ernestine began questioning God at the tender age of five.1
Her first rebellious act was to question the justice of a God who would exact hardships such as her father's frequent religious fasts.2
She had fully "rejected the idea of female inferiority and the religious texts that supported that idea" by age fourteen.1

At 16, she was betrothed against her will by her father. She pled her case to her betrothed, but he denied to release her because she came from a rich family. She argued her case in a secular civil court, who not only released her but ruled that she could keep the inheritance she had received from her mother.1

She returned home and relinquished the fortune to her father anyway, but discovered that he had remarried a 16-year-old girl. After tension escalated, she left home at the age of seventeen, using a small amount of her relinquished fortune to travel.3

She travelled to Berlin, but met obstacles in the form of anti-semitic laws requiring non-resident Jews to have a Prussian sponsor. She appealed to the king personally and received an exemption.1

Ernestine was penniless. She developed and sold her own room deodorizer to fund her travels.1

Those travels took her to Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and finally England. A shipwreck left her destitute again, but she taught German and Hebrew and continued selling her deodorizers.2

In the meantime, she met someone who influenced her entire future.
In England in 1832, she met Robert Dale Owen, a utopian socialist whose ideas on human rights and equality informed her future activism.2
Owen convinced her to speak at his hall for radicals, and she was a favorite, quickly becoming a regular speaker.1

She also met and married William Ella Rose. Rose was an Owenite, and a Christian artisan and silversmith. They emigrated to the US in 1836, becoming naturalized citizens and settling in New York city in 1837.1

She began giving lectures, which led to traveling widely. Her ventures were often met with mixed welcome--or sometimes, even outright hostility.1
In the United States, Rose’s extemporaneous speeches on religious freedom, public education, abolition, and women’s rights earned her the title “Queen of the Platform.” She lectured frequently in New York and nearby states. However, she also traveled to the South, where she confronted a slaveholder who vowed he would have tarred and feathered her if she were not a woman, and as far west as Michigan, where she is credited with beginning “the agitation on the question of woman suffrage.”2
Her passion for social change did not always accomplish what she would have liked.

Rose’s eloquent advocacy of a sweeping agenda for social change produced mixed results. She failed to achieve her dream of a utopian socialist community in Skaneateles, New York, but was successful in 1869, after nearly fifteen years’ work, in securing New York legislation that allowed married women to retain their own property and have equal guardianship of children.2
Rose was an atheist, but she did not forget her Jewish heritage.
Rose abandoned her Jewish religious practices, but she responded with immediacy when the editor of the Boston Investigator, a free-thought journal for which she frequently wrote, attacked the Jewish people. A ten-week letter exchange ensued, during which Rose presented a strenuous critique of antisemitism and a defense of Jews based on their historical contributions to secular as well as religious culture. This prompted the editor of the Jewish Record to write in an article on the controversy that Rose showed “some of the old leaven of the Jewish spirit.” 2
She joined the "pantheon of great American women" with such influential women as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis, and Sojourner Truth.1

In 1854, she was elected president of the National Women's Rights Convention. Susan B. Anthony was one of her most stringent supporters, declaring that "every religion--or none---should have an equal right on the platform."1

Her influence cannot be understated:
Although American women did not gain the vote until more than a quarter-century after Rose’s death, Susan B. Anthony considered her, with Mary Wollstonecraft and Frances Wright, to have pioneered the cause of woman suffrage.2

In 1869, she and her husband set sail for England, following a farewell party organized by Susan B. Anthony. 1

Her health improved after 1873 and she joined the cause for women's suffrage in England.1

Her reformer friends did not forget her:
In 1883 Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton traveled to London in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Rose to return to America.2
She died in England in 1892.1 She was buried beside her beloved William.

What did Ernestine have to say?

"Emancipation from every kind of bondage is my principle. I go for recognition of human rights, without distinction of sect, party, sex, or color."

"But say some, would you expose woman to the contact of rough, rude, drinking, swearing, fighting men at the ballot box? What a humiliating confession lies in this plea for keeping woman in the background!"

"It is an interesting and demonstrable fact, that all children are atheists and were religion not inculcated into their minds, they would remain so."

"When a man comes to me and tries to convince me that he is not a thief, then I take care of my coppers."

"Books and opinions, no matter from whom they came, if they are in opposition to human rights, are nothing but dead letters."

"No! on Human Rights and Freedom, on a subject that is as self-evident as that two and two make four, there is no need of any written authority."

What was Ernestine's influence?

Ernestine's causes were wide-ranging, as noted. But her influence on the Women's Rights Movement cannot be understated.
Susan B. Anthony recognized Ernestine Rose as one of the three foremothers of the 19th-century women's rights movement in the United States: "Mary Wollstonecraft and then Frances Wright and Ernestine Rose...All spoke about women's rights before Lucretia Mott, Stanton and others."3
Her influence on Anthony was profound:
Anthony kept a large photo of Rose on the wall of her study and described her as "that noble worker for the cause of women's rights."3
So why don't we remember her?
Despite her fundamental contributions to the advancement of women’s rights, most historians have failed to sufficiently acknowlege Rose or the role she played in this struggle. Her fall into obscurity may have been because of her unusual social status—a Jew among Protestants, an immigrant in a period of increasing nativist sentiment, an atheist in a primarily religious society. It may also have been because she left no descendants.2


Ernestine definitely holds a special place for me, as both a feminist and an atheist. Reading her story simply delights me.

I hope that it has delighted you too.

And may we always strive to remember to Agitate! Agitate! wherever we are, for those less privileged. That's the reformer's call.


1 "Ernestine Rose". Wikipedia. <> August 13, 2014.

2 Janet Freedman. "Ernestine Rose". Jewish Women's Archive. <> August 13, 2014.

3 "A Feminist Pioneer". Ernestine Rose Society. <> August 13, 2014.

4 Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Ernestine L. Rose". Freedom From Religion Foundation. <> August 13, 2014.

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