Words of wisdom

"Human rights include the rights of all, not only man, but woman, not only white but black; wherever there is a being called human, his rights are as full and expressive as his existence, and ought to be without limits or distinction of sex, country, or color..."

—Hartford Bible Convention, Hartford, Conn., 1853.

About Ernestine Rose

erose-in.jpg

Photo by permission: The Schlesinger Libary, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

N.B. 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.

She traveled to over 23 states by railroad car and stagecoach, speaking in churches, barns and state legislatures. She is remembered as the person who brought the women's movement to the State of Michigan. She was the only one who addressed new immigrants in languages such as German and French.

Though Rose's early and continuing contribution to the advance of women's rights is unquestionable, her social status may have contributed to the lack of recognition from historians. She was an immigrant in a period of rising nativist sentiment, a Jew in largely Protestant reform movements, a freethinker and atheist in movements that often turned to the Bible for authority.

Rose may also have been forgotten because she had no descendants to champion her legacy and because she and her husband left America in 1869 for retirement in England. Why Ernestine Rose left the country she loved after 30 years of vigorous activism, and after becoming a U.S. citizen just prior to departure, is one of the enduring mysteries of Rose's legacy, one which scholars continue to probe.

In England, the Roses continued their commitment to the women's movement and the freethinker movement, but on a less active scale. William Rose died in London in January of 1882.

In 1883 Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited Ernestine Rose in London and tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to return to America. Rose was unwilling to do so. She died in Brighton, England on Aug. 4, 1892 and was buried next to her beloved William at Highgate Cemetery in London.

Click here for information about the restoration of the Roses' grave marker and the dedication ceremony held at London's Highgate Cemetery on Aug. 4, 2002 on the 110th anniversary of the death of Ernestine L. Rose.

Sources

Héricourt, Jenny P. "Madame Rose", Revue Philosophique et Religieuse. Paris 1856. (Translation forthcoming: Paula Doress-Worters and others. "Madame Rose as told to Jenny P. d'Héricourt,": Journal of Women's History, spring, 2003.)

Kolmerten, Carol A. The American Life of Ernestine L. Rose. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999. Most up-to-date and well-researched biography of Rose.

Suhl, Yuri. Ernestine L. Rose: Women's Rights Pioneer. New York: Biblio Press, 1990. First book-length biography of Rose. Second edition with Preface by Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall and Introduction by Francoise Basch.