By Janet Freedman
“I was a rebel at the age of five,” said Ernestine Rose. She was born in the Jewish quarter of Piotkrow, Russian Poland, on January 13, 1810, to a rabbi whose religious duties and scholarly pursuits were supported by the generous dowry of his wife, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Her family name was Potowski and her given name, Ernestine Louise, was acquired only after she moved to England. 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. Her first rebellious act was to question the justice of a God who would exact hardships such as her father’s frequent religious fasts. At age fourteen she rejected both the idea that women were inferior to men and the Jewish texts and traditions that supported this belief. Two years later, following her mother’s death, she refused to marry the man her father chose. She brought her case before the civil court, an unusual act at a time when Jews abided by the decisions of rabbinic authorities. She traveled many hours in severe weather to argue on her own behalf and recovered the inheritance that had been promised by her father to her betrothed. Justice received, she returned most of the money to her father, taking only what she needed to leave Poland.
She arrived in Prussia to find that Polish Jews were unwelcome. Again she sought justice, this time appealing to the king of Prussia, who exempted her from a law that required sponsorship of Jews by a German property holder. While in Berlin, she invented a room deodorizer, the proceeds of which allowed her to support herself in Holland, Belgium, and France. She advocated for the oppressed wherever she traveled. In England in 1832, she met Robert Dale Owen, a utopian socialist whose ideas on human rights and equality informed her future activism. Owen encouraged her to speak at meetings of the Association of All Classes of All Nations, which they cofounded, launching her brilliant career as an orator. In 1835, she married William Ella Rose, a jeweler and fellow Owenite, and the following year the couple settled in New York.
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.”
From 1850 to 1869, when she and her husband returned to England (for reasons which scholars continue to debate), Rose attended and played a major role in nearly every New York and national convention on women’s rights. She toured with Susan B. Anthony, who adopted Rose’s slogan “Agitate, agitate.” In the 1840s and 1850s, when antislavery and women’s struggles overlapped, she worked closely with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Paulina Wright, Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. After the Civil War, some political strategists urged that women delay their quest for the vote and focus on the rights of African Americans, but Rose consistently maintained that the struggles be conjoined, stating “emancipation from every kind of human bondage is my principle.”
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.”
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. 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. In 1883 Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton traveled to London in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Rose to return to America.
Despite ill health, Ernestine Rose continued to work for social justice until her death in Brighton, England, on August 4, 1892. Although she left no personal memoirs or letters, her eloquent words, spoken in thirty-two states and abroad, justify the assessment of her as the “first Jewish feminist.”
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.
But heeding Rose’s own words, spoken at New York’s annual Thomas Paine celebration of 1840: “Let us, by honoring the memory of reformers in the past… encourage the rise of others in future time,” the Ernestine Rose Society was founded in 1998 to “revive the legacy of this important early nineteenth century reformer by recognizing her pioneering role in the first wave of feminism.” The Society’s first project was to raise funds for the restoration of the crumbling marker at the Roses’ grave site. The Society also convened a panel on Rose’s life and achievements at the Twelfth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women (June 2002) and a symposium at the Women’s Library of London Guildhall University (August 2002).
On August 4, 2002, the 110th anniversary of Rose’s death, the Society held a memorial service at London’s Highgate Cemetery to dedicate the restored headstone of Ernestine and William Rose, fulfilling the group’s mandate to ensure that this “courageous and pioneering woman… would no longer rest in an unmarked grave.”
Freedman, Janet. “Ernestine Rose.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive.