Carol A. Kolmerten Biography Reading

From "The American Life of Ernestine L. Rose" pp. 270-272

Unlike Robert Owen or many of the Transcendentalist men, Ernestine Rose did not forsake her beliefs during her last decade of life. Instead, she was determined to prevent any recantations of her life's work should an illness make her mind feeble. She wrote into her will that her executors "shall not permit my body to be taken into any chapel or church but to carry out my funeral in the manner generally as that of my late husband, William E. Rose." William had had a memorial service led by Charles Bradlaugh that had no mention of religion in it. Similarly, she directed her friend Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, Charles Bradlaugh's daughter, to be with her during her final illness lest she be "invaded by religious persons who might make her unsay the convictions of her whole life when her brain was weakened by illness and she did not know what she was doing" (National Reformer, August 14, 1892).

Ernestine Rose did not recant. At Brighton for the fresh air and sea, Rose suffered a stroke on August 1, 1892; within a few hours she was mostly unconscious, dying three days later on August 4. An attendant and doctor looked over her final hours, and she was "untroubled by any thoughts of religion" (National Reformer, August 14, 1892). She was, according to George Jacob Holyoake, who delivered the oration at her grave site at Highgate Cemetery in London, ready to die and had been for a number of years. "It is no longer necessary for me to live," she had told him; "I can do nothing now," adding "but I have lived!" (Brighton Herald Aug. 13, 1892).

I imagine her statement to Holyoake as a matter-of-fact one. "It is no longer necessary for me to live" is an unmartyred assertion that seems to fit perfectly with Rose's outward-focused life. Unable to "do anything" — to speak or write or even read with William — Rose was quite ready for death. As she had written in a sympathy letter to the Garrison family in 1877, "a time comes to all of us to submit to the inevitable." (to Francis Garrison, Jan. 22, 2877, GFP). Her final letters suggest that her infirmities had increased but that her spirit remained strong…

I like to focus on Rose's words, "I have lived," Ernestine Rose lived a very public life for a series of interrelated causes to which she was utterly devoted. Although women would not obtain suffrage in the United States until almost 30 years after her death, it was her pioneering work and her ceaseless efforts, year after year, that helped to create and energize the women's rights movement. Few of us are as brave as she was. Most of us compromise in order to get small reforms enacted. Her refusal to compromise surely cost her many friendships and much comfort, but those friends who stayed close to her understood her great worth. Walt Whitman, who particularly admired Rose, called her "big, rich, gifted, brave, expansive — in body a poor sickly thing…but a with a head full of brains — the amplitude of a Webster."(quoted in Reynolds 220). At the end of her life, perhaps while sitting in her study where Rose's picture hung on the wall, Susan B. Anthony wrote that Ernestine Rose, the first woman next to Frances Wright to publicly demand equality of rights for women, was the "most eloquent and logical extemporaneous speaker on our platform" ("National Women Suffrage Association Report," 1884 117). When she was on the stage, Anthony said, we all felt safe: "those who sat with her on the platform in bygone days, well remember her matchless powers as a speaker…and how safe we all felt when she had the floor (HWS 1:100). The new editor at the "Boston Investigator" wrote in his obituary of Rose that she labored "for the human race with noble purpose and unselfish aim…such a life as she lived is to be imitated by those who would add to the glory of humanity." (BI Aug. 17, 1892).

Such was the life of Ernestine L. Rose. Even though Rose was one of the most important leaders of the movement she helped to generate, she was not appreciated in her own time and has been relatively unknown in ours. Susan B. Anthony wrote from Baltimore in 1854 that Rose was not appreciated, "nor cannot be…[because] she is too much in advance." We need to become reacquainted with her sharp tongue, her ready wit and her passion to the cause of justice. We might even be ready to appreciate her.

Posted with permission of the author.