Berkshire Conference on Women's History

Secular Jew; Women's Rights and Human Rights Activist; International Socialist

Ernestine L. Rose was one of the earliest to speak on women's rights in America, beginning in the mid 1830s. By 1850, she was the most celebrated orator on women's rights reform. Yet she has been nearly forgotten by historians and the public.

Born the daughter of a rabbi in Poland, at 16 years old Ernestine rebelled against an arranged marriage, successfully argued in court to retain her inheritance and used it to leave home and find others who shared her ideals. After a year in Berlin and six years in England, she immigrated to America where, for over 30 years she spoke, lobbied and petitioned for human rights reforms before returning to England in 1869.

Why Rose became marginalized from the movement she founded and its very history, and why she chose in 1869 to leave America — the place where she had her strongest influence — is a puzzle.

Panel

An entire panel at the 12th Berkshire Conference on the History of Women was devoted to the life and contributions of Ernestine L. Rose (1810-1892).

Convened and chaired by Paula Doress-Worters, a resident scholar at Brandeis University's Women's Studies Resource Center and founder of the Ernestine Rose Society, the panel featured four distinguished scholars who serve on the advisory board of the society.

Each of the panelists addressed an aspect of Rose's life and thought, and explored the reasons underlying her increasingly marginalized position in both the women's rights movement she helped to found, and in the history of the movement itself.

The synergy and contradictions among the papers sparked a spirited discussion of whether the prejudice Rose faced was primarily due to her Jewish origins, to her professed atheism or to other factors.

Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall, the commentator, cited Sartre's observation that a Jew is one who is taken for a Jew (whether that person practices Judaism or not), yet she supported the view that Rose's atheism, socialism and internationalism were more salient factors in her marginal status.

Indeed, anti-Semitism and nativism were on the rise, and Rose was the only non-Christian among the reformers. Yet atheism was as much beyond the pale in 19th century America as it is today.

Does it matter to us today whether Rose was isolated from the reform movements due to her atheism, her foreign birth, her socialism or her atheism? In our social reform movements today, we seek diversity of race, religion and national origin. Yet atheism is still beyond the pale; few modern activists seek to bring the issue forward, knowing it will undercut their effectiveness.

Thus, this issue is still relevant, for in a nation that guarantees freedom of religion in its Bill of Rights, the freedom not to practice a religion must be protected as much as the freedom to practice a religion of one's choice.

With its multiplicity of perspectives, the panel demonstrated vividly and persuasively that if we want to know more about the origins of the women's rights movement, the anti-slavery debates, the position of Jews, atheists or articulate women in the 19th century, we need to know more about Ernestine L. Rose.