Why Ernestine Rose Is Important Today
Although she was one of the most famous women in the United States in the 1850s, Ernestine Rose had been almost completely forgotten by the turn of the twentieth century. History is written by the victors and between Rose's death in 1892 and the 1970s, American history focused on white men and their achievements. She and many others were written out of history. But her life and ideals are still vitally important now.
First, Rose worked ardently for "free thought," as atheism was called by its supporters. (Opponents stigmatized them as "infidels.") She was not just an atheist, but an "out" atheist who lectured frequently on this subject. Rose considered all religions to be "superstition," thought that churches were the chief agent of women's oppression, and criticized the Bible, among other reasons, for supporting slavery. Although 54% of Americans said they would vote for an atheist for president in a 2012 Gallup Poll, I really doubt that a candidate who proclaimed atheism would get far today. Even agnosticism is suspect, paradoxically at a time when many religious Christians and Jews backed a candidate who violated most of their beliefs' basic precepts.
Rose was also an out feminist, although in her day the term was a "woman's right woman." Despite the fact that "feminist" has recently become more acceptable, with Beyonce and others using the word, it's still suspect. Far too many people say "I'm not a feminist, but...." and then go on to support basic feminist principles, like equal pay for equal work. In Rose's time, women could not vote and would not receive the vote for almost thirty more years. In our day, many white women voted for a candidate who bragged of "grabbing women by the pussy," as well as committing serial adultery, and generally treating women as inferior beings who had "blood coming out of their whatever."
Rose was also an immigrant to this country. Always seen as a "foreigner" who accent was continually mentioned if not derided, she was considered Polish although she lived in New York City for 33 years. The recent rise of anti-immigrant sentiment here attests to the importance of recognizing the claims of those whose labors here have built this nation. I've written more about this subject in my previous blog, "Ernestine Rose and DACA."
Finally, Rose strenuously opposed slavery, at a time when abolitionism was supported by only a small minority of white Americans. The current opposition to "Black Lives Matter," exemplified by groups calling themselves "White Lives Matter" or "Blue Lives Matter," the outrageous delays by police forces over their unjustified shootings of black men and boys, and the continued prejudice which has removed white children from many public schools, not only in the south but also here in New York City, testifies to the need for continued work against racism here.
So Ernestine Rose's value and ideals are, unfortunately, still amazingly pertinent today. Her life has much to teach us and can be found in my new biography, The Rabbi's Atheist Daughter, available at a discount from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Please consider assigning it in your high school, college, or graduate school classes.