Ernestine Rose, Activist and Philosopher – The Queen of the Platform

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39 Marine Parade, Brighton, East Sussex, UK, where Ernestine Rose retired and where she died. Photo by Janet Cameron

39 Marine Parade, Brighton, East Sussex, UK, where Ernestine Rose retired and where she died. Image by Janet Cameron, all rights reserved.

Ernestine Potowski was born in Piotrknow, Poland, on 23 January, 1810; the daughter of a rabbi. She was passionate about social reform and humanitarian activities, and like many pioneering women, she was vulnerable to much abuse as well as gratitude for her great services.

Ernestine’s mother died when she was just six years old, and; as a result, she endured a rigid childhood, as her father was a strict and strong-willed man… But nothing could crush Ernestine Rose’s indomitable spirit.

Conflict with Rabbi Father Over “Heresies”

“About Ernestine Rose,” published by The Society of Ernestine Rose, (author un-named) describes Ernestine Rose’s approach to religious studies: “Her intelligence was more given to questioning than accepting received wisdom.” Ernestine’s independence of thought during her studies of Judaism and the Talmud with her father caused a great rift between them.

“Her goal for society was intellectual freedom, freedom from the constraints of religious creeds and dogma…She concluded that all major religions were both irrational and oppressive to women,” explains The Society of Ernestine Rose.

At sixteen, her father betrothed Ernestine to a man much older than herself, but she refused him. When her father married a girl around Ernestine’s own age, it became too much for her to bear, and she left home. She had to endure a legal battle for her mother’s inheritance, and at the same time, she was obliged to defend herself from being sued by the rejected suitor.

Ernestine Rose – Ever True to Herself

For a while Ernestine lived in Berlin, although she had to fight for entry, as there were restrictions on Jewish immigrants. Then she travelled to France and Holland, and finally came to England in 1829 (in some sources, 1830) to teach languages. Ernestine was a creative and resourceful woman – she also marketed perfumed paper for use in crowded accommodation.

At no time did she consider converting from Judaism to Christianity, in spite of the pressure to do so, as many Jews did simply to make their lives more bearable. About Ernestine Rose quotes her as saying, “Shall I leave the tree to join a branch?”

Joined in a Common Purpose

In London, she met William Rose, a jeweller, and they married in a civil ceremony. They moved to New York in 1836 and this is where Ernestine’s campaigning life began. It was a fine, mutually beneficial arrangement, as they were both equally committed to humanitarian goals and also cared deeply for one another.

William provided the stability and the financial support, while Ernestine honed her knowledge and her skills in the art of oratory. She spoke bravely against slavery, despite violent opposition.

W.J. McIlroy in his pamphlet, Without the Faith, Freethinkers and Freethought in Brighton and Hove, says:

“An eloquent orator of indomitable courage, she denounced slavery at a time when Christian churches in that country were still defending it as a divine institution.”

Helping the Under-Privileged

Both William and Ernestine followed the theories of Robert Owen, a rich industrialist who cared deeply about social and community issues. Owen and the Roses believed that the only way forward was to try to improve the condition of the poor, rather than blaming them for the results of their deprivation, as a judgemental society was prone to do.

In 1836, Ernestine petitioned for the cause of married women’s property rights and after twelve years of her activism, in 1848, New York State passed the first married women’s property law in the United States of America.

The New York campaign led to connections between a number of great feminist activists and  philosophers, among them Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Paulina Wright Davis and, eventually, in 1832, the well-known feminist, Susan B. Anthony.

"... every good cause must have its martyrs. Why, then, should woman not be a martyr to her cause?" ~ Ernestine Rose. Image by Decoded Past.

Ernestine Rose: Prepared to speak out against social ills, she was reviled by many who disagreed with her views. Image by Decoded Past.

‘Worse Than a Common Prostitute’

W.J.  McIlroy explains how Ernestine was also passionately committed to the cause of gender equality. A woman prepared to speak against slavery and gender-inequality, as well as being Jewish, an atheist and an abolitionist, went violently against the conformist society in which she lived.

According to McIlroy, “…One newspaper described her as a “female atheist… a thousand times below a prostitute.”

The Ernestine Rose Lectures

Fortunately, we know about Ernestine’s great work since a number of her lectures were published. Her words are arousing and inspiring. You will find one in the resources below, if you would like to read it for yourself.

When speaking of freedom, for example, from, A Lecture in Women’s Rights, October 19, 1851, her metaphor is memorable in its strength and thrust:

“The love of liberty has convulsed the nations like the mighty throes of an earthquake.”

In the same lecture, pertaining to women’s rights, she says, “WOMAN is rising, in the full dignity of her being, to claim the recognition of her rights.” It is not clear whether the capitals are hers as written, or whether they are there to indicate the emphasis she placed on the word. Either way, it imparts to the word an urgency for which most of society wasn’t entirely prepared.

As for her atheism, McIlroy quotes from one of these lectures, controversially entitled In Defence of Atheism:

“You ask how it is that Man talked or wrote about God. The answer is very simple. Ignorance is the mother of superstition. In proportion to Man’s ignorance, he is very superstitious.”

An Iconoclastic Figure, Forgotten by History

It is extraordinary that a woman of such courage, ability and confidence, and who made such enormous humanitarian changes and improvements, is not better known today. The Society of Ernestine Rose says:

“Though Rose’s early and continuing contribution to the advance of women’s rights is unquestionable, her social status may have contributed to the lack of recognition from historians. She was an immigrant in a period of rising nativist sentiment, a Jew in largely Protestant reform movements, a freethinker and atheist in movements that often turned to the Bible for authority.”

It seems a poor legacy to be so neglected for a woman whose rallying cry was “LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY.”

Women, everywhere, must be thankful for her sacrifices and her contributions, and must work to ensure she takes her rightful place in the history books.

Ernestine Rose died at her home in 39 Marine Parade, Brighton, on 4 August 1892 and is buried in Highgate Cemetery in London together with the husband she loved.

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© Copyright 2014 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past


  1. Janet Cameron says

    Hi Douglas,
    That’s a big question, and I wish she was still alive so we could ask her! I cannot answer for her, only report the facts of her life as I find them, but I think being both an atheist and freethinker are compatible – if only because this proves she is not going with along with cultural expectations but deciding for herself. After all, it was uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous for a woman to express such a strong, independent will.

    I think, perhaps, you are also referring to her refusal to convert from Judaism to Christianity to save herself from attack in time of acute racial tension. According to her writings, she believed religions, and therefore, Judaism, were irrational and she declared herself an atheist.

    Jewishness is not about religion, it’s about belonging a race of people, descendants of the Israelites, a proportion of whom follow the religion of Judaism. At that time, some Jews were converting to Christianity to save themselves from attack (and who can blame them!) It’s my guess she wasn’t going to be pushed around and remained true to her cultural roots, by simply not taking action. She had, after all, already fallen out with her father over her refusal to embrace his religious views, and had made her theories public.

    That’s my best guess about how Ernestine Rose operated, but it would be interesting to hear other people’s views. Janet C.

    • john says

      An interesting piece Janet thank you for bringing this remarkable woman to my attention, there have been many like her throughout history, unfortunately the millennia-old patriarchal society does its best to forget them and at its worse to expunge them from history, ignoring and ridiculing their achievements.
      Consider the women who were instrumental in the birth of Judeo-Christian traditions (although I am a staunch atheist), can one not say that the founder of Christianity was a woman – Mary the mother of Jesus? And yet she and Mary Magdalen are possibly the only two women that most Christians and non-Christians know of and then refuse to recognise their particularly significant role in the denomination. This prejudice continues to the present day in both major Christian denominations and their many sects and off shoots.
      Why no women bishops, why so few women vicars, why no female priests, cardinals, bishops and popes in the Catholic faith?
      I shall not attempt to answer these (it will take to long and I will be out of my depth too soon) but the questions are worth contemplating, as is what has organised religion got against those who are different from ordinary ‘normal’ men and women that it was active or complicit in the persecution and even slaughter of those who were/are seen as different. Even up to very recent times.
      In the ancient regime the role of Paul and St Augustine who perhaps did more damage to women in general than in particular.

      • Janet Cameron says

        Yes, indeed John, and isn’t amazing how writing about these issues seems to raise even more questions than we started with? Unfortunately, there are still areas where patriarchy dominates, the Catholic Church being one. Thanks for your input, and you are right when questioning what’s so great about being “normal” rather than a seeker of new insights, thereby achieving, change and progress. It’s a no-brainer.

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