Ernestine Rose - "America's First Jewish Feminist"
May 16, 2015
Ernestine Rose was an atheist feminist, individualist feminist, and abolitionist. She was one of the major intellectual forces behind the women's rights movement in nineteenth-century America.
She was born on January 13, 1810, in Piotrków Trybunalski, Russia-Poland, as Ernestine Louise Polowsky. Her father was a wealthy rabbi and her mother the daughter of a wealthy businessman.
At the age of five, Rose began to "question the justice of a God who would exact such hardships" as the frequent fasts that her father performed. As she grew older, she began to question her father more and more on religious matters, receiving only, "A young girl does not want to understand the object of her creed, but to accept and believe it." in response. By the age of fourteen, she had completely rejected the idea of female inferiority and the religious texts that supported that idea.
When she was sixteen her mother died and her father, without her consent, betrothed her to a young Jew who was a friend of his. Rose, not wanting to enter a marriage with a man she neither chose nor loved, confronted him, professing her lack of affection towards him and begging for release. However, Rose was a woman from a rich family, and he denied her plea.
Rose traveled to the secular civil court, where she pleaded her case herself. The courts ruled in her favor, not only freeing her from her betrothal, but ruling that she could retain the full inheritance she received from her mother. Although she decided to relinquish the fortune to her father, she gladly took her freedom from betrothal. She returned home only to discover that in her absence her father had remarried, to a sixteen-year-old girl. The tension that developed eventually forced her to leave home at the age of seventeen.
Rose then traveled to Berlin, where she found herself hampered by an anti-Semitic law that required all non-Prussian Jews to have a Prussian sponsor. She appealed directly to the king and was granted an exemption from the rule. Soon afterward, she invented a room deodorizer, which she sold to fund her travels.
She traveled to Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and finally England. Her arrival in England was less than smooth, however, as the ship in which she was sailing wrecked. Although Rose did make it to England safely, all her possessions had been destroyed, and she found herself destitute.
In order to support herself, she sought work as a teacher in the languages of German and Hebrew and she continued to sell her room deodorizers. While in England, she met Robert Owen, a Utopian socialist, who invited her to speak in at a radical event. In spite of her limited knowledge of English, the audience was so impressed that she became a regular.
She and Owen were close friends, and she even helped him to found the Association of All Classes of All Nations, a group that espoused "human rights" for all people of all nations, sexes, races and classes. During her time there she also met William Ella Rose, a Christian jeweler and silversmith, an Englishman and an "Owenite". They were soon married by a civil magistrate, and both made it plain that they considered the marriage a civil contract rather than a religious one.
In May 1836 the Roses emigrated to the United States, where they later became citizens and settled in a cozy house in New York city in 1837. The Roses soon opened a small "Fancy and Perfumery" store in their home, where Rose sold her perfumed toilet water and William ran a silversmith shop.
Rose soon began to travel to different states to espouse the abolition of slavery, religious tolerance, public education and equality for women. Her lectures were met with controversy. When she was in the South to speak out against slavery, one slaveholder told her he would have "tarred and feathered her if she had been a man"...
In the 1840s and 1850s, Rose joined the "pantheon of great American women", a group that included such influential women as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis and Sojourner Truth and fought for women's rights and abolition.
In the winter of 1836, Judge Thomas Hertell submitted a married women's property act to the legislature of New York city to ... allow them to hold real estate in their own name. When Rose heard of this resolution, she began a petition in support. In 1838, this petition was sent to the state legislature in spite of it only having five names. This was the first petition ever introduced in favor of rights for women. During the following years, she increased both the number of petitions and the number of signatures. In 1849, these rights were finally won.
Rose also attended and spoke at numerous conferences and conventions, including, but not limited to: the first national convention of Infidels, the Hartford Bible Convention, the Women's Rights Convention in the Tabernacle, New York City, the tenth national convention of the National Women's Rights Convention in Cooper Institute, New York City, the State Women's Rights Convention in Albany, New York, and the Equal Rights Association meeting in which there was a schism.
Rose was elected president of the National Women's Rights Convention in October, 1854, in spite of objections that she was an atheist. Her election was heavily supported by Susan B. Anthony, who declared that, "every religion - or none - should have an equal right on the platform".
Although she never seemed to attach any importance to her Jewish background, Rose accused Horace Seaver, the abolitionist editor of the Boston Investigator of being anti-Semitic.
In her later years, after a six month trip to Europe, she attempted to stay away from platforms and controversy. Within 6 months, she made the closing address at the nationwide Women's Rights Convention. However, her health once again took a downward turn, and on June 8, 1869, she and her husband set sail for England. Susan B. Anthony arranged a farewell party for them, and the couple received many gifts from friends and admirers, including a substantial amount of money.
After 1873, her health improved, and she began to advocate women's suffrage in England, even attending the Conference of the Woman's Suffrage movement in London and speaking in Edinburgh, Scotland at a large public meeting in favor of woman's suffrage. She died in England in 1892.
I suppose you all grant that woman is a human being. If she has a right to life she has a right to earn a support for that life. If a human being, she has a right to have her powers and faculties as a human being developed. If developed, she has a right to exercise them.
At a New York State convention, Rochester, N.Y. (1853), quoted in Kolmerten, Carol A., The American Life of Ernestine L. Rose, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999, p. 129-130.
What rights have women? ... [they are] punished for breaking laws which they have no voice in making. All avenues to enterprise and honors are closed against them. If poor, they must drudge for a mere pittance--if of the wealthy classes, they must be dressed dolls of fashion--parlor puppets...
At the Social Reform Convention, Boston (1844), quoted in Kolmerten, Carol A., The American Life of Ernestine L. Rose, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999, p. 49.
Profile in Jewish Women's Archives