Ernestine Rose Society

"The Jewish Dimension of Ernestine Rose's Biography and Contribution to Women's Rights"

Carol DuBois, PhD

Rose was the "most formidable and radical" of the first generation of women's rights lecturers according to Ellen Carol DuBois, a noted expert on the American Woman Suffrage Movement.

In professor DuBois' provocative paper, "The Jewish Dimension of Ernestine Rose's Biography and Contribution to Women's Rights," she observes that though there were few Jews in 19th century America, Ernestine Rose, a leading proponent of women's rights, was a Jew. Unlike many Jews of her generation, Rose never converted to Christianity. A passionate freethinker, Rose rejected religion altogether. At least once at a women's rights convention, she identified herself as "a child of Israel."

Rose was notable among the women's rights reformers in insisting upon the civil rather than the religious nature of marriage, and for espousing divorce and other legal remedies for women in bad marriages. In her address, Professor DuBois argued that Rose was influenced by the Judaic emphasis on law rather than creed in regarding marriage as a human institution rather than a sacrament.

From the beginning of her public life in America, Rose had been attacked as a freethinker and atheist, but by the 1850s there was a rising note of anti-Semitism in the press. She was even called, "a ringleted, glove-handed exotic (trying to)…obliterate from the world the religion of the Cross."

When Jews were attacked in a freethinker newspaper, Rose mounted a spirited human rights defense declaring, "The nature of the Jew is governed by the same laws as human nature in general... Are the Jews in Boston so much worse (than those in Europe where civil rights for Jews had been won in many countries), that their 'spread' is to be dreaded...? ...let us as Infidels ... not add to the prejudice already existing towards the Jews, or any other sect. Yours for justice..."

DuBois concluded that the growing anti-Semitism during and after the Civil War contributed to making Rose's position in the reform movements less tenable and may have figured in her decision in 1869 to depart for England. No other Jewish woman was prominent in women's rights reform until Maud Nathan some 30 years later.