By Bonnie S. Anderson
By the 1850s, Ernestine Rose (1810-92) was one of the most famous women in the United States, known as an outstanding orator for women’s rights, anti-slavery, and free thought. This achievement is all the more remarkable because she was an immigrant, an atheist, and a Jew, which made her unique in the early women’s movement and extremely unusual among abolitionists. Born the only child of a Polish rabbi, she lost her faith young. Her father tried to get her to marry a religious man of his choosing; instead, she sued for her dowry in a Polish court, won, and then left Poland, her family, and Judaism forever. She lived in Berlin, Paris, and London, where she became a socialist, free-thinking follower of Robert Owen, the industrialist turned radical. This background made her an outlier to most of American society, which always called her a “foreigner.” But she felt at home in New York City, where an Owenite group flourished and an 1836 guidebook proclaimed:
Rose fit right in and made New York the base for her many political activities throughout her time here. She lived in this city for thirty-three years, longer than any other place in her life.
In addition to this campaign, the Roses had joined the flourishing society of “Moral Philanthropists” – the New York free-thought organization. It met every Sunday morning at the newly built Tammany Hall, home of the Democratic Party. From June to October, 1837, Ernestine Rose debated the well-known lecturer, Benjamin Offen, there on whether private or communal property was more conducive “to the happiness of mankind.” Rose championed socialism, arguing that it “would destroy all that baseness on which much of trade and private property is based.” Although she did not convince most of her audience, she established her reputation as a free-thought orator, a difficult position for anyone in Christian America, but particularly hazardous for a women. In late 1837, when she attempted to speak at a large meeting in the evangelical Broadway Tabernacle about improving public schools, she was shouted down as an “infidel.”
Such opposition never deterred her. At a reform meeting in 1844, she told the women in her audience “never to enter a church again” because “they oppress you.” The room erupted and “the speaker was assailed with a shower of hisses.” She “waited calmly until the tumult had subsided, when she again repeated the injunction… and the repetition and uproar went on until the excited multitude, unable longer to keep up the din, were compelled through exhaustion, to hear the daring heresy in silence.” In addition, Rose advanced women’s rights within the free-thought movement itself. In New York City, this group celebrated Thomas Paine’s birthday on January 29th. (Paine became a free-thought hero because of his Age of Reason, which argued that all religions were created by men “to terrify and enslave mankind.”) In 1839, William Rose was invited to the Paine dinner, “to which ladies were not admitted.” Ernestine and other women were asked “to join the ball in the evening.” The couple refused these invitations and Ernestine organized an alternate celebration which included women equally. This established a new tradition and Ernestine Rose presided over the New York Paine celebrations from mid-1840s until they ended in 1861.
In addition to freethought, Rose began to work for both women’s rights and anti-slavery. She muted her free-thought beliefs in these movements, but neither cause was popular in conservative New York City. A free-thought friend of Rose’s wrote that “the prejudice of color is yet so great that some of our members cannot bear to sit down with” blacks. Ernestine Rose shared none of this racism, consistently arguing that every person deserved equal “human rights, without distinction of sect, party, sex, or color.” In 1850, she attempted to speak at the annual New York Antislavery Association meeting, but she and others, including Frederick Douglass, were shouted down. The same thing happened at an 1853 women’s rights convention in the city. Rose presided, sharing the stage with Sojourner Truth, Wendell Phillips, and the German-American activist Mathilde Franziska Anneke, among others. But “horrible noises” prevailed, a New York newspaper reported, with “rapping of canes, clapping of hands, shrieks, and groans, and sneezes.” Rose was forced to adjourn the meeting – soon known as “the Mob Convention” – while the police stood by.
But she persisted in voicing her beliefs. By the 1850s, she had become one of the best-known orators in America, speaking in twenty-three of the existing thirty-one states. Praised as giving speeches “the equal of which few men are competent to make,” she shone at women’s meetings. “I was infinitely relieved when Mrs. Ernestine L. Rose took the floor,” a female reporter wrote about the 1860 National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York:
A good delivery, a forcible voice, the most uncommon good sense, a delightful terseness of style, and a rare talent for humor, are the qualifications which so well fit this lady for a public speaker. In about two minutes she managed to infect her two-thousand-fold audience with a spirit of interest – an audience which mere dry morals and reason had succeeded in reducing to a comatose state.
By the 1860s, Ernestine Rose’s health deteriorated and instead of touring the United States, she confined herself to New York events like the Eleventh National Woman’s Rights Convention in 1866. The end of the Civil War ushered in a difficult time for feminists. Should they support “the black man’s vote,” as it was called, or continue to work for the vote for everyone. Rose was clear on her priorities. “We have proclaimed to the world universal suffrage,” she declared at the New York meeting of the Equal Rights Association in 1867, “but it is universal suffrage with a vengeance attached to it…. White men are the minority in this nation. White women, black men, and black women compose the large majority.” The women’s movement split over this issue in 1869.
Before then, however, Ernestine Rose supported a series of other causes, among them the Universal Peace Union, the Working Women’s Association, and a proposed New York City foundling hospital. She also continued to write public letters, unleashing her talent for sarcasm on a New Jersey clergyman who maintained that women should remain at home providing “ornamentation,” while only men went out to work. “New Jersey is said to be out of the world; but where, Oh! Where has Dr. J.T. resided? For if he had ever lived within sound, sight, or smell of a human habitation, he would have found out before 1869 that poor woman like poor man has always been ‘doomed to labor’; only she has not yet been doomed to be paid for it as well as he.”
Rose wrote hardly anything about her personal life and never explained why she and William decided to return to London. It may have been an attempt to restore her health by travelling, a remedy used far more by men in this era than women. She did explain that they found London cheaper and more pleasant to live in than New York, because of a difference in boarding houses. In New York City, all residents ate at set times together; in London, they found an apartment where the owners would cook, clean, and serve meals whenever the Roses wished. They did return to New York in the winter of 1873-74 with the intention of remaining, but Ernestine became severely ill and after she recovered, the couple returned to London for good. After William Rose died in 1882, her American friends pleaded with her to come back to New York, but she said that she did not have the strength for the voyage and that she wanted to be buried in the same grave as William. To me, however, she remains a quintessential New Yorker. Her intelligence, her ready wit, her ability to oppose the mainstream, and her internationalism remain New York characteristics today. Ernestine Rose embodied the values of this city where she lived longer than anywhere else.
Bonnie S. Anderson taught history and women’s studies at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York for over thirty years. With her lifelong friend, Judith Zinsser, she co-authored A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present. This post is based on her new book, The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer (Oxford University Press, 2017).