Ernestine Rose

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Ernestine Rose

Ernestine Rose (January 13, 1810 - August 4, 1892) was a Jewish suffragist, abolitionist, and atheist.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica:

Ernestine Rose, née Ernestine Louise Potowski, Potowski also spelled Potovsky or Polowsky, (born Jan. 13, 1810, Piotrków Trybunalski, Russian Poland—died Aug. 4, 1892, Brighton, Eng.), Polish-born American reformer and suffragist, an active figure in the 19th-century women’s rights, antislavery, and temperance movements.

Born in the Polish ghetto to the town rabbi and his wife, Ernestine Potowski received a better education and more freedom than was typical for Jewish girls of that time and place. She was taught to read Hebrew by her father but could not accept the tenets of his faith. By the age of 14 she had renounced the Jewish laws and customs that relegated women to an inferior status. Her mother died when Potowski was 16, and she inherited a significant amount of property. Without consulting her, however, her father arranged for her to marry a man his own age and signed over her inheritance as the dowry. She took her inheritance claim to a Polish court, where she won a legal endorsement of it, and then left Poland the following year, leaving most of her inheritance to her father.

Potowski lived in Berlin for the next two years and then in the Netherlands and Paris before settling in England at the age of 21. There she joined a circle of reformers and philanthropists that included jeweler and silversmith William E. Rose, whom she married in 1836. The couple soon immigrated to the United States, where Ernestine Rose began to spearhead the drive for equal rights for women. She strongly opposed the law of the day that deprived married women of the right to control property they had owned before marriage, and in the 1840s she led a drive in New York state to reverse that law. In 1848 the state legislature enacted a measure permitting married women to keep control of the property that had been theirs as single women. (See Married Women’s Property Acts.) By 1850 Rose had become involved in the new women’s rights movement that had been born two years earlier at the Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. An effective speaker, Rose promoted not only women’s rights but also the abolition of slavery and a ban on the manufacture of alcoholic beverages. In 1869 she cofounded, with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the National Woman Suffrage Association, whose chief aim was a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.[1]

Brandeis University indicates

Stories about Ernestine's early life are largely anecdotal, often based on stories she told to friends and interviewers. It is only when she arrives in America that we have a substantial historical record of her public life:

Born Jan. 13, 1810 in Piotrkow, Poland, Ernestine Susmond Potowski, grew into an intellectually precocious young woman. As a rabbi's daughter, she was offered more education than women commonly received at that time. She studied Hebrew scriptures and Talmud with her father.

Her intelligence was more given to questioning than accepting received wisdom. Very early, she began to raise questions about the texts that led to gossip in the community and conflict with her father over her 'heresies.'

After her mother's death, her father, hoping thereby to keep her in the fold, arranged a marriage without her consent. Ernestine, then 16, refused the match and fought to retain her inheritance from her mother, successfully defending against a claim for damages in a secular court by the spurned suitor. At 17, she left home for Berlin, successfully suing for entry to the city where draconian regulations severely limited Jewish settlement.

Arriving in Berlin, Ernestine supported herself by tutoring and marketing perfumed papers of her own invention to deodorize crowded tenement housing. Seeking enlightenment, she studied the texts of all the great religions, and concluded that all were irrational and oppressive to women. Her goal for herself and for society was intellectual freedom, freedom from the constraints of religious creeds and dogma.

While disavowing Judaism as irrational, Ernestine nonetheless refused conversion to Christianity. "Shall I leave the tree to join a branch?" Her reply is particularly notable given that it was the path chosen by so many desperate German Jews of the time. The German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine referred to baptism as the 'entry ticket to Western civilization,' in ironic justification of his own conversion to Christianity which he later regretted.

The following year Ernestine Susmond traveled around Europe in search of colleagues who cared as much as she did about justice and equality. (She seems to have dropped Potowski as a surname, perhaps because of the break with her father.) She spent time in Holland and France, then arrived in England in 1830.

There she became a follower of Robert Owen, a wealthy industrialist turned social reformer who preached a form of community-based socialism. Owenite socialism emphasized improving the conditions of people's daily lives, rather than blaming them for shortcomings which were the product of deprivation.

An active feminist wing in the Owenite movement provided Ernestine with opportunities to hone her public speaking skills and improve her English so that by the time she left for America, she was quite fluent, though still with a noticeable accent. Before leaving England, Ernestine married Englishman and fellow Owenite, William Ella Rose in a civil ceremony.

Their marriage was a harmonious and lifelong relationship based on love and shared commitments in which William provided the moral and financial support for Ernestine to travel and speak on behalf of the social reforms they both cared about so deeply.

No sooner did Ernestine Rose arrive in New York in May of 1836, than she was out knocking on doors with a petition for married women's property rights. Rose was one of the first to speak publicly in America on women's rights, and the first to petition for women's rights.

After 12 years of activism, in 1848, New York State passed the first married women's property law in the United States (Other states followed.) The New York campaign led to lifelong connections between Ernestine Rose, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Paulina Wright Davis who, together with growing numbers of women, would build a women's rights movement in America.

Susan B. Anthony, who joined the movement in 1852 and became its best known leader, often acknowledged Rose's pioneering role and kept her photograph on her study wall. Elizabeth Cady Stanton acknowledged the value of this early victory to the building of a national movement that is often assumed to have started with the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.

For the next 30 years, Ernestine Rose was an active campaigner on the lecture circuit attending every National Women's Rights Convention between 1850 and 1869 and many state and local conventions as well. She was hailed as "The Queen of the Platform," for being the best female orator of mid-19th century America.[2]

Enestine Rose's grave in Highgate Cemetery. See also: Atheism and death

The Jewish Women's Archive website declares:

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.[3]

Backlash/antipathy against Ernestine Rose and her current obscurity

See also: Distrust of atheists and Sociology of "atheism is un-American" view and Views on atheists and Atheism and social outcasts

In the United States and throughout much of the world, atheists are a distrusted minority (see: Distrust of atheists and Sociology of "atheism is un-American" view and Views on atheists and Atheism and social outcasts). This was even more the case during the 1800s which is the period Ernestine Rose lived in (see: Atheism, women and history).

The online research website Questia declares concerning Ernestine Rose:

The editor of a small Maine newspaper wrote "It would be shameful to listen to this woman, a thousand times below a prostitute." A minister in Charleston, South Carolina, forbade his congregation to heed "this female devil."...

Despite her importance, Rose is perhaps the most forgotten of the women's rights activists; today virtually no one knows her name. She is, to use Virginia Woolf's words, "a stranded ghost." Her disappearance from history is telling: not only was she scorned by newspaper editors and Southern ministers, but she also was isolated from and sometimes ignored by the very women and men with whom she shared reform platforms. Rose was an "other" in a movement of others--an outsider in a group of women who banded together against oppression. She looked and sounded different from the other women: she spoke with a foreign accent; she was outspoken; she was ironic.[4]

Ernestine Rose quote

See also: Atheism quotes and Atheism and children Atheist apologetics

"It is an interesting and demonstrable fact, that all children are Atheists, and were religion not inculcated into their minds they would remain so." ——Ernestine L. Rose, “A Defense of Atheism” speech, 1861, reprinted in the anthology Women Without Superstition. See also: Irreligion and superstition

(Weak atheism is an individual merely lacking a belief in God/gods. Using this broad definition of definition of atheism, there are atheists who argue that babies are atheists.[5] See also: Atheism and children)

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