Ernestine Rose (1810-1892) 2011 CHJ Humanist of the Year by Dave Shafer CHJ
As her postage stamp attests, she was a pioneer campaigner for women’s rights
Ernestine was born in 1810 in the small town of Piotrkow, near Lodz Poland today
Piotrkow is now a town of about 80,000 people. In 1897, near the year that Ernestine died in England, the town had 31,000 people and 1/3 were Jewish
Ernestine was a rabbi’s daughter. Sons often study with their father but she studied Torah with her rabbi father – unusual for that time. A song from 1910
Ernestine was very intelligent and quickly absorbed the biblical material she studied. She was her father’s only child. She soon began to doubt everything. She wrote: “I was a rebel at the age of 5”
The more she studied and thought the more Ernestine lost her naïve and gullible childish beliefs. She said, humorously, “I asked God if it was a sin and He didn't say anything.”
Ernestine would have agreed with this statement by Bertrand Russell
Her religious skepticism did not set well with her community and caused conflict with her rabbi father. He arranged for a marriage for her, at age 16, without her consent
Ernestine was not about to tolerate an arranged marriage. One option was to flee – a very dramatic and courageous step for a young woman in those days.
Ernestine rejected the arranged marriage and at 17 she left for Berlin, where she supported herself by tutoring and an unusual business venture. She started a business of selling perfumed papers, her own invention, to deodorize crowded tenement housing.
There will always be a need for deodorizers and Ernestine’s business did well. It gave her financial freedom quite unusual for a young unmarried woman.
She studied the texts of all the religions and concluded that they are all irrational. Furthermore, they all oppressed women.
Ernestine’s free-thinking turn of mind soon extended to issues of social justice. She traveled around Europe seeking like-minded people and spent time in France and Holland, before moving to live in England in 1830, at the age of 20.
She became a follower of Robert Owen, the wealthy British industrialist - turned social reformer. An atheist, he was intent on improving the lot of workers through socialism. A feminist wing of his movement gave Ernestine a great chance to hone her oratory skills
In 1832 Ernestine married a fellow Jewish atheist and socialist, William Ella Rose and later they set sail for America. Their marriage was a civil ceremony and the start of a lifelong harmonious relationship. He was a successful jeweler and silversmith and supported her in her travels around America speaking for women’s rights, anti-slavery, and other social causes. They had no children.
In 1807 England made the slave trade illegal, but not slavery itself. Here is an unintended consequence. Slave ship captains that were caught, after the law was passed, were fined 100 pounds for every slave found on board. As a result, if the slave ship captain thought that his capture by the British navy was immanent, he would often avoid this fine by having the slaves thrown into the sea.
In 1833, three years before Ernestine Rose and her husband left for America, England made slavery itself illegal. Cumulative small protests by activists like Ernestine finally killed off slavery in England, but it took many years to do so. In America, Ernestine would find that it took a civil war to do it.
In 1836 Ernestine arrived in New York City and instantly was on the soap box, speaking out for women’s rights. Especially property rights for married women.
Until 1848 married women could own no property. What they had before marriage passed directly to the husband after marriage. This led to many abuses. New York State passed the first law in the US to fix this.
From the cradle to the grave she is subject to the power and control of man. Father, guardian, or husband, one conveys her like some piece of merchandise over to the other. Ernestine Rose But it will be said that the husband provides for the wife, or in other words, he feeds, clothes and shelters her! I wish I had the power to make every one before me fully realize the degradation contained in that idea. Ernestine Rose If they are unsuccessful in married life, who suffers more the bitter consequences of poverty than the wife? But if successful, she has not a dollar to call her own. Ernestine Rose In case of separation, why should the children be taken from the protecting care of the mother? Who has a better right to them than she? How much do fathers generally do toward bringing them up? Ernestine Rose
What was New York City like in 1836 where Ernestine arrived? Poe had just moved there from Baltimore and Samuel Morse was running for mayor of the city.
In 1836 the well-dressed New York woman wore very billowy sleeves and a conical shaped lower dress – both designed to make the waist look smaller than it was. We have no idea how Ernestine dressed, but it was probably much more working-class, for that time.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ernestine Rose started a lifelong collaboration on women’s rights issues.
Emancipation from every kind of bondage is my principle. I go for recognition of human rights, without distinction of sect, party, sex, or color. Ernestine L. Rose Harry Houdini, in chains
The few bright meteors in man's intellectual horizon could well be matched by women, were she allowed to occupy the same elevated position. Ernestine Rose
Cultivate the frontal portion of her brain as much as that of man is cultivated, and she will stand his equal at least. Even now, where her mind has been called out at all, her intellect is as bright, as capacious, and as powerful as his. Ernestine Rose The main cause is a pernicious falsehood propagated against her being, namely that she is inferior by her nature. Inferior in what? What has man ever done that woman, under the same advantages, could not do? Ernestine Rose
Ernestine Rose lectured widely and was admired for her mastery of oratory. She became known as the “Queen of the Platform”. Over a span of 30 years she visited 23 states by railroad car and stagecoach, speaking about women’s rights.
“For here lies the corner stone of all the injustices done woman, the wrong idea from which all other wrongs proceed. She is not acknowledged as mistress of herself. From her cradle to her grave she is another’s. We do indeed need and demand the other rights of which I have spoke, but let us first obtain OURSELVES.” – Ernestine L. Rose from her address at the fourth National Women’s Rights Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, October 1853.
Even today there are issues related to a woman’s right to own her own body.
Suffragists were often portrayed in contemporary cartoons in a humorous mocking way. Ill-tempered crones were often featured. Ernestine was very active in pushing for the vote but was many years ahead of her time.
Another anti-suffragist image was of a woman who would be neglecting her home duties – here that of hugging her baby – in order to leave the home and vote and exercise other rights.
Men feared empowering women and how it might emasculate them.
An old document – talking points for anti-suffrage speakers. The fine points of grammar Man’s work, and it is a closed labor shop
But say some, would you expose woman to the contact of rough, rude, drinking, swearing, fighting men at the ballot box? What a humiliating confession lies in this plea for keeping woman in the background! Ernestine Rose
Left – “Queen of the Home”, Say the Anti-Suffragists. Yes – Queen of a cook stove throne. Top – What is a suffragette without a suffering household?
Not all women supported the suffrage movement. Away with that folly that her rights would be detrimental to her character - that if she were recognized as the equal to a man she would cease to be a woman! Ernestine Rose
Ambiguous message – a woman does not want to be stereotyped as just a homemaker. Yet does this cartoon imply that a woman must reject all of that if she votes and expands outside the home? Russia gave women the vote before we did
In 1869 Ernestine and her husband left America to retire to England. There she stayed active with her causes, but less so. He died in 1882, she in 1892.
Like other pioneering rights advocates, Ernestine Rose did not live to see the fruits of her labors Ernestine Rose dies, 1892 American women get the vote, 1920
All that I can tell you is, that I used my humble powers to the uttermost, and raised my voice in behalf of Human Rights in general, and the elevation and Rights of Woman in particular, nearly all my life. Ernestine L. Rose
Ernestine Rose is buried in London’s famous HighGate cemetery, home to many departed celebrities. She was a pioneer in actively championing women’s rights and was a model humanist. Her compelling oratory linked three reform movements: women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, and religious freethought.