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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
Ernestine Rose: A Troublesome Female
The home of a rich Jewish rabbi in Peterkoff Tribulalski, Poland, at the beginning of the nineteenth century would seem an inauspicious setting for the birth of a feminist, Atheist radical known for her eloquence throughout two English-speaking countries. Yet that is where Ernestine Rose began the troublesome inquiries that would lead her to renown in Atheist circles throughout Europe and the United States.
She was born Ernestine Louise Polowsky 1 on January 13, 1810. Since her mother had died when she was a child, her entire care and education devolved upon her father, a rabbi. She was reared by him in strict accordance with the tenets and rituals of the Jewish religion. Consequently, her education embraced a knowledge of the Hebrew language and of the Old Testament.
Her father frequently fasted very severely to please his god and her first rejection of this god resulted when she perceived its fasting demands to be too harsh. Her intellectual development brought her to find many things in the Bible which she could neither understand nor approve. Later in her life she explained, \I was a rebel at the age of five.\
As she grew older, she found that she could not bring herself into compliance with the rules of Jewish womanhood. Even as a young girl, she plied her father with questions on religious matters. He, a dutiful rabbi and learned Jewish leader, would answer, \A young girl does not want to understand the object of her creed, but to accept and believe it.\ Her final open confession of disbelief when she was a teenager brought her into conflict with her father and an unpleasant relationship developed.
In order to force her into the obligations of the Jewish faith, her father, without her consent, betrothed her to a friend and fellow Jew when she was sixteen. When she learned of the arrangement, she was filled with despair. She took the course of directly confronting the man her father had chosen, telling him that she did not and could not love him. On her knees before him, she begged for a release. But she was a rich and beautiful young woman and her betrothed laughed in her face at the suggestion. By the terms of the betrothal, Ernestine would forfeit a good share of the property which reverted to her from her dead mother if she broke the marriage contract. Ordinarily, such a problem would be taken to the rabbi of the Jewish community — but in this case the rabbi was Ernestine's father. Unwilling to fill the obligation of the betrothal, she resorted to the secular law of the Polish courts, notoriously hostile to the Jews. This meant a long and lonely journey to the Tribune of Kalish in the dead of winter. Yet, renting a sleigh and a driver, she undertook the journey through high snow and howling winds. She presented her petition to the court, pled her own cause, and won it, to return triumphantly to her home to declare her victory. The court also decreed that she could retain her inheritance. She had, however, by then decided to relinquish her fortune to her father.
Upon her return from this lengthy stay, she found that her father had remarried — to a young woman just sixteen years of age. The disharmony which then developed in her home caused her to leave it. By the time she was seventeen, she had established herself in Berlin, one of the foremost cultural centers of the day. There she lived alone, obeying the German restrictions placed on Jews as to their movements, the kinds of work in which they could engage, and how long they could stay. Ernestine was so shocked by these restrictions in a city of such international é1an as Berlin that she wrote to the king of Prussia demanding an audience. She was successful in her plea to him, and he ruled that she could remain as long as she desired and engage in any business. To maintain herself, she invented and sold perfumed paper, remaining in Berlin for nearly two years. Thence she traveled to Holland, Belgium, and France.
In June 1829, she decided to go to England, but again a circumstance beyond her control occurred. The ship in which she set sail was wrecked, and she arrived in England destitute of all her possessions. Immediately she sought employment as a teacher in languages (Hebrew and German) and again began the sale of her perfumed paper. She soon found the radical elements of London and was introduced to Robert Owen 2 after hearing him speak. Then about sixty years of age, he was quite impressed by her considerable intellect, and he invited her to speak in the huge hall he had furnished for radical speakers. For her initial presentation, several thousand persons were in attendance. Although she was severely hampered by her slight knowledge of the English language, her attractiveness and enthusiasm won the audience. Following this, her appearances were regular.
Robert Owen referred to her as \his daughter,\ and their friendship lasted for years. Under his auspices, Ernestine helped to found the Association of All Classes of All Nations. This pioneer group called for human rights for all people, regardless of sex, class, color, or national origin. A unique feature was that the group accepted no formal religion, its goal being solely to make humankind \and all other living things,\ as happy as possible. It was at this time that she made her full break with religion.
She was, also, but briefly, in Paris during the Revolution of 1830.
She soon became acquainted with Mr. William Ella Rose, a skilled jeweler and silversmith, a Christian, and a fervent disciple of Robert Owen. He was an Englishman, three years her junior, but also, of broad, liberal views. They were married in due form by a civil magistrate. Both of them made it plain to their friends that they considered marriage a civil contract, founded on mutual esteem and love.
In May 1836, they left England for the United States and later became citizens of the new nation. Here, they settled in at 484 Grand Street in New York City, where — in the following year — Rose opened a silversmith shop in their home. Again, using her skill in chemistry, Ernestine began the manufacture of toilet water or \Cologne water,\ and soon their shop was known as a small \Fancy and Perfumery\ store. William Rose repaired jewelry, watches and ornaments; she manufactured German waters for wholesale, retail, and export. Also, Ernestine devoted herself to lecturing on those subjects which most interested her.
She declared herself to be an Atheist. As such she desired to enlighten and free all slaves — slaves of race, slaves of faith, slaves of sex, as she taught each the same text, \Knowledge — Liberty.\
Although she met with discouragements, rebuffs, lack of acknowledgement of her achievements, and hostility from women, she was described by Samuel P. Putnam 3 as \one of the best lecturers of her time.\ He wrote that \no orthodox man could meet her in debate.\
In the winter of 1836, Judge Thomas Hertell, a radical and freethinker, submitted a married women's property act in the legislature of the state of New York to investigate ways of improving the civil and property rights of married women, and to permit them to hold real estate in their own name. Upon hearing of the resolution, Ernestine Rose drew up a petition and began the soliciting of names to support the resolution in the legislature. At that time she was also writing articles for the New York Revolution.
This first petition drive by a woman was sent to the state legislature in 1838. The first ever introduced for any rights for women, the petition presented just five names — all that Ernestine had been able to obtain in a five-month period. She persevered during succeeding years and was able to increase both the number of the petitions and the names until such rights were finally won in 1849. Others who participated in the work for the bill included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Frances Wright, and Susan B. Anthony. These women, who were all anti-religious if not outright Atheists, were responsible for inaugurating the Women's Rights movement in the United States.
Ernestine also, at this time, joined a group of freethinkers who had organized a Society for Moral Philanthropists. This group sponsored public lectures and debates, and Ernestine Rose became one of the most popular attractions at the lectures, which sometimes drew as many as 2,000 persons. In 1837, she took part in a debate that continued for thirteen weeks. Her topics included the advocacy of abolition of slavery, women's rights, equal opportunities for education, and civil rights. She came to be much in demand and began to travel for lectures, first in New York state and then in the North and West and as far south as Kentucky and South Carolina. She worked also in close association with William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Together these people traveled endless miles, wrote and delivered speeches, debated, argued, pleaded, and organized in behalf of their multifaceted causes.
At one time she went to Charleston, West Virginia, and advertised that she would publicly lecture there on the evils of slavery. The lectures were so ill received that she needed considerable influence to get her safely out of the city.
She was in attendance at the first national convention of Infidels, in 1845, where she had a seat of honor next to her old friend and teacher, Robert Owen, who was then seventy-four years of age.
Ernestine Rose was credited for introducing \the agitation on the subject of women's suffrage\ in Michigan in 1846.
Later when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton analyzed the influences which led to the famous Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, they identified three precipitating factors:
The radical ideas of Frances Wright and Ernestine Rose on religion and democracy.
The initial reforms in women's property law in the 1830s and 1840s.
\Above all other causes,\ women's experiences in the antislavery movement.
By 1851 Ernestine Rose was the queen of the speakers' platforms. She was beautiful, cultured, liberal, and had great oratorical powers. She was then lecturing mostly on \The Science of Government\ and was attracting much attention. At Worchester, Massachusetts, it was she who opposed calling upon the Bible to underwrite the rights of women, claiming primarily that human rights and freedom of women were predicated upon \the laws of humanity\ and that women, therefore, did not require the written authority of either Paul or Moses, because \those laws and our claim are prior\ to both.
In 1855, the busiest year of her life, she was invited to deliver an anti-slavery lecture in Bangor, Maine. In advance of her appearance a local newspaper accused her of being \a female Atheist.. . a thousand times below a prostitute.\ She responded in a letter to a competing paper and sparked off a town feud. By the time she arrived, everyone in the town knew of her and were anxious to hear her.
All of these lectures and debates were regularly reported in the Boston Investigator, to which Rose was a constant contributor. The Investigator was an avowed infidel and Atheistic publication, and Rose fearlessly attacked the clergy in it.
She was independent, thoughtful, critical, inquiring. She would not cater to the majority:
All whose great desire is to \stand well with the people\ know full well that the secret of their success consists in swimming with the current — in not being too far in advance of society; and so in their writings and speeches they give the people, not what they most need and ought to hear, but what would be most acceptable to the pride, vanity, or interest of their hearers or readers. At times a step in advance is very desirable to attract by the novelty of the position, but they take good care not to go too far, lest existing prejudices should throw them off the track. This is called, by many, good, worldly philosophy, and it may be, but I can give no other name than ignorance, or moral cowardice, which binders far more than it advances the progress of the race.
She attended the Women's Rights Convention in the Tabernacle, New York City, on September 10, 1853. She spoke at the Hartford Bible Convention in 1854. It was in March of that year, also, that she took off with Susan B. Anthony on a speaking tour to Washington, D.C. Anthony arranged the meetings and Ernestine Rose did all of the speaking. It was after the experience of this successful tour, that Susan B. Anthony embarked on her own first lecture tour.
Later, in October, Ernestine Rose was elected president of the National Women's Rights Convention at Philadelphia, overcoming the objections that she was an Atheist. Anthony was her champion for this fight, declaring that every religion — or none — should have an equal right on the platform.
On May 5, 1856, Ernestine Rose and her husband set sail for England and the continent, on the ship Northumberland. Once again, she tried to visit her native Poland and was denied admission. After a six-month sojourn, they returned to the United States. She attempted, thereafter, because of her health, to stay away from the platform and from controversy. But within six months she was in attendance in the nationwide Women's Rights Convention, where she made the closing address. She told the attentive audience:
The wisest of all ages have acknowledged that the most important period in human education is in childhood. . - - This most important part of education is left entirely in the hands of the mother. She prepares the soil for future culture. . . . But the mother cannot give what she does not possess; weakness cannot impart strength. With an imperfect education . . . can she develop the powers, call out the energies, and impart a spirit of independence in her sons? . . . The mother must possess these high and noble qualities, or she never can impart them to her offspring.
In 1860 New York State passed a law that granted women nearly everything for which they had petitioned. It recognized the right of a married woman to be sole owner of any property she had inherited prior to or during marriage; it gave women power to make investments, sign contracts, sue or be sued. She also achieved equal control over her children. In New York she could do almost all — except vote. Everywhere many persons, perhaps inspired by the indefatigable efforts of these women, were by this time supporting better education for women.
In that same year, 1860, Ernestine Rose was featured as a speaker at the tenth national convention of the National Women's Rights Convention in Cooper Institute, New York City. In a brief exchange after that speech she put succinctly the lesson that all Atheists everywhere yet need to learn:
Freedom, my friends, does not come from the clouds, like a meteor; it does not bloom in one night; it does not come without great efforts and great sacrifices; all who love liberty have to labor for it.
She appeared again in Albany, New York, for the State Women's Rights Convention in early February of 1861, the last one to be held until the end of the Civil War. On May 14, 1863, she shared the podium with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Antoinette Blackwell when the first Women's National Loyal League (finally to have 5,000 members) met to call for equal rights for women, and to support the government in the Civil War \in so far as it makes a war for freedom.\
She was in attendance at the Equal Rights Association meeting in which there was a schism and on May 15, 1869, she joined with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone to form a new organization, the National Woman Suffrage Association, fighting for both male and female suffrage, taking a position on the executive committee.
Ernestine Rose had remained in poor health for a number of years — until after the Civil War. On June 8, 1869, suffering from severe neuralgia and rheumatic pain, she again set sail for England. Her farewell party was arranged by Susan B. Anthony. Mrs. Rose and her husband both received thoughtful gifts, including a substantial sum of money collected from colleagues and admirers. Since the couple was then in reduced circumstances, such a gift seemed most appropriate.
The Fifteenth Amendment, which became a part of the Constitution of the United States on March 30, 1870, extended the right to vote to all male citizens regardless of race, color, or \previous condition of servitude.\ Women were not included. As abolitionists, they rejoiced; as women they felt betrayed. The unity of the movement was completely split over this issue; consequently two separate organizations were formed. Ernestine Rose was fully on the side of women being included, emphasing repeatedly that, \. . . in a republic based upon freedom, women, as well as the negro, should be recognized as equal with the whole human race.\
After 1873 Ernestine's health did improve and she began again to take part in the causes of freethought and Women's Suffrage in England, even attending a Conference of the Woman's Suffrage movement in London, reported in the National Reformer. She was a speaker in Edinburgh, Scotland, on January 27, 1873, at a large public meeting in favor of Woman's Suffrage and later spoke at the Universal Peace Society.
In 1876 she delivered a pointed speech at the Conference of Liberal Thinkers at South Place Chapel, in London.
Ernestine Rose was described by her compatriots, even in her old age, as beautiful. She was of medium height, matronly form, thoroughly feminine, soft curls — iron gray in color, fair, pale checks, beautiful eyes, a slight lisp, and a foreign accent and pronunciation. Her official biographer was Mrs. Jenny P. D'Hericourt, but the American Atheist Library has not been able to obtain this author's biography.
Her husband, William Rose, died in 1882. After his death she seldom left her home in a London flat. She, herself died at Brighton, England, on August 4, 1892, at age eighty-two and was buried beside her husand.
She was the author of the pamphlet Defense of Atheism which was one of the freethought pamphlets in circulation in the early times of The Truth Seeker. J. M. Wheeler, of the London Freethinker, wrote that only six weeks before her death she presented him with a copy of that work and said she had nothing to alter.
Bates, Daisy. Foreward to Women in the Life and Time of Abraham Lincoln, from Proceedings of The Meeting of the Loyal Women of the Republic, held in New York, May 14, 1863. New York: Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women's Clubs, 1963.
Bennett, D. M. The World's Sages, Thinkers and Reformers, Being Biographical Sketches of Leading Philosophers, Teachers, Skeptics, Innovators, Founders of New Schools of Thought, Eminent Scientists, Etc. New York: The Truth Seeker Company, 1876.
DuBois, Ellen Carol, ed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Correspondence, Writings, Speeches. NY: Schocken Books, 1981.
Harper, Ida Husted. The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony. 3 vols. Indianapolis: The Hollenbeck Press, 1908.
Macdonald, George E. Fifty Years of Freethought, Being the Story of The Truth Seeker, with the Natural History of its Third Editor. Vol. 2. New York: The Truth Seeker Company, 1931.
McCabe, Joseph. \Rose, Ernestine Louis Lasmond Potovsky.\ In A Rationalist Encyclopaedia, A Book of Reference on Religion, Philosophy, Ethics, and Science. London: Watts & Co., 1948.
Robertson, J. M. A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century. 2 vols. London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1969.
Tribe, David. 100 Years of Freethought. London: Elek Books Limited, 1967.
Suhl, Yuri. Ernestine L. Rose and The Battle for Human Rights. 1959.
Underwood, Sara. \Ernestine L. Rose.\ In Heroines of Freethought. New York: Charles P. Somerby, 1876.
Wheeler, J. M. A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations. London: Progressive Publishing Company, 1889.
Wiseman, Alberta. Rebels and Reformers, Biographies of Four Jewish Americans, Uriah Phillips Levy, Ernestine L. Rose, Louis D. Brandeis, Lillian D. Wald. Garden City, NY: Zenith Books, Doubleday & Company, 1976.
1 Some accounts give her second name as Lasmond or Susmond; some give her last name as Potovsky.
2 Robert Owen (1771-1858), a Welsh industrialist, introduced hygienic factories, infant schools, co-operative societies, labor exchanges, and profit-sharing in industry to Britain. He founded the utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana, in 1825.
3 Samuel P. Putnam (1838-99) founded the journal Freethought in San Francisco in 1887. During his involvement in the freethought movement, he served as president of the American Secular Union and the Freethought Federation of America.