Ernestine Rose's Obituary

The New York Times recently published a section called "Overlooked," writing obituaries about women whom they never covered despite their importance.  I just submitted my suggestion for Ernestine Rose.  However, the Times has received over 2000 new suggestions and seems to want to write the obituaries themselves.  Therefore, I'm posting my obituary of her here.

This "Queen of the Platform in the 1850s became forgotten in the early twentieth century.

by Bonnie S. Anderson

     An outstanding orator for women's rights, free thought, and anti-slavery, Ernestine Rose was far more famous in the mid-nineteenth century than her co-workers, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.  Lecturing in 23 of the existing 31 states, at a time when women rarely spoke publicly, she earned her reputation despite major handicaps: she remained the only immigrant as well as the only atheist in the early women's movement.

     Born in Poland in 1810, she was the sole child of Rabbi Potowsky, who educated her as a "surrogate son" at home.  When she interrogated the Bible, he told her "little girls must not ask questions," even though little boys were supposed to do so.  She later told a reporter that this "made her an advocate of religious freedom and women's right" at an early age.

     When she was 15, her mother died, leaving her a substantial inheritance.  Her father betrothed her to a man she did not want to marry, writing a contract that if she did not go through with the wedding, her fiance would receive her money.  When her betrothed refused to release her from the engagement, she took an unprecedented action for a young girl, traveling alone by sleigh to plead her case before a district court.  Ernestyna Potowska succeeded.  She remained immensely proud of this triumph, invoking it in later years to demonstrate what women could achieve.  The court awarded her the money and when she returned home, she discovered her father had remarried a girl her own age.  Realizing that she could not live happily with her new step-mother, she left her family, Poland, and Judaism forever.

     She went first to Berlin, then the center of liberal Judaism.  There, she read "not dead books (like the Bible) but living ones."  She also invented a perfumed paper which could be burned to bring pleasant odors to homes.  After two years in Berlin, she traveled to Paris, arriving in time for the Revolution of 1830, which replaced a conservative monarch with a liberal one.  Deploring all monarchies, she moved on to London, the largest and most industrialized city in the Western world.

     There, she "found friends as liberty-loving as herself" in the circle surrounding Robert Owen.  An immensely successful factory owner turned radical, Owen became her substitute father and new educator.  Owen endorsed socialism, free thought, labor unions, and equal marriage.  His movement attracted women and allowed them to write and speak in public.  There, Potowska began her career as an orator.  She also met and married her adored and adoring husband, the silversmith William Rose.  In 1836, the new couple traveled to the United States, settling in New York City for the next 33 years.

     In New York, Ernestine Rose began her political work, debating socialist principles in the active Owenite community there and also carrying a petition for Married Women's Property Rights around lower Manhattan.  In this era, everything a married woman owned belonged to her husband.  Rose received only one signature a month but continued on.  This work introduced her to other women's rights activists and she also began lecturing for free thought and against slavery.  She bore two children who died young.  By the late 1840s, she spent the bulk of her time traveling and lecturing.  This supported both by William and by the couple's decision to save money by not hiring a servant.

     Rose came to the fore of the women's movement in 1851 at the second National Women's Rights Convention, held in Worcester, Mass.  She had not attended the Seneca Falls, N.Y. gathering in 1848 which was both small and local.  Present at the First National in 1850, she attracted notice because of her oratory.  Delegated to present the main speech in 1851, she gave "an address which has never been surpassed," a co-worker wrote in an early history of women's rights.  Even though she was the only "foreigner" among this group of native-born Americans, Ernestine Rose became an acknowledged leader of the movement.  Lecturing to audiences of thousands, she spoke for racial equality as well as women's rights.  "Black and white, male and female, all deserve human rights," she frequently proclaimed.  "They who sat with her in bygone days on the platform will remember her matchless powers as a speaker," Susan B. Anthony later declared, "and how sage we all felt when she had the floor."

     Although Ernestine Rose attempted to unite her three causes of women's rights, free thought, and anti-slavery, she met with little success in this attempt.  Women's rights workers were devoutly Christian, often beginning meetings with prayers and hymns.  There, she muted her atheism and avoided religious discussions.  Freethinkers, for their part, tended to disparage abolitionism.  They believed the Bible to be the chief justification for slavery and thought combating religion the most important battle to be waged.  The anti-slavery movement had divided over women's rights, with the largest and most successful faction opposing them.  Abolitionists also relied heavily on Christian teachings.

     The Civil War divided the women's movement between those who thought the vote for black men should take precedence and those, like Rose, who wanted the vote for all.  During the war, her health began to fail.  In 1869, she and William emigrated back to England, returning to the United States for just one visit.  In Britain, Ernestine Rose again became a powerful speaker for a few years, embraced by the freethought and feminist communities.  However, her health continued to decline and she gave her last public speech in 1878.  Her English friends sustained her through the great tragedy of her life: William's death from a heart attack in 1882.  Ernestine lived another 10 years, maintaining her values as she became confined to a wheel chair.  "For over fifty years, I have endeavored to promote the rights of humanity without distinction of sex, sect, party, country, or color," she wrote an American couple when she was 77.  Two years later, in 1889, an English journalist wrote that "Mrs. Rose has a fine face and head, and although aged and suffering, retains the utmost interest in the Freethought cause."

     That favorite cause brought its own difficulties.  In this era, Christians tried to convert sick and dying atheists.  Rose received hostile letters from those who assumed that suffering would lead her to Christianity.  She arranged for the daughter of her good friend, the atheist Charles Bradlaugh, to be with her when she lay ill to prevent "religious persons who might make her unsay the convictions of her whole life when her brain was weakened by illness."  She died, undisturbed, in 1892.

     By the 1920s, however, she had been forgotten.  "I doubt whether one American Jew in ten thousand has ever heard of her," the Forward wrote then.  As a Jew, an atheist, a woman, and a foreigner who left the United States, Ernestine Rose did not fit into the narrative of U.S. history in the first half of the twentieth century.  The Boston Investigator, an atheist newspaper that often wrote about her, predicted in 1871 that she would be appreciated "in about a hundred years."  They were correct.  In the 1970s, women's history, African-American history, and Jewish Studies restored her importance.  She deserves to be remembered.