MARCH 22, 2017
HISTORIANS DO NOT LIKE to think of someone as ahead of his or her time. Figures, however farseeing, are inextricably enmeshed in temporal particularity, and any historian committed to the craft dwells instinctively on how one life or another was the product of its time. Historical circumstance leaves little remainder. And, yet, every once in a while, a historian will come across someone in the archives who seems so jarringly out of place, so anomalous, as to give pause. Ernestine Rose is one such character: a 19th-century activist for abolition, women’s rights, and freethinking atheism — the daughter of a Polish rabbi who unstintingly pursued her projects of radical reform in her adopted homes of England and the United States. Her defiance of convention was as extraordinary as her outlandish courage.
Rose has hardly been forgotten as a forward-looking reformer — her writings have been anthologized, her story woven into the histories of women’s rights, antislavery, and secularism — but Bonnie S. Anderson’s new biography elevates her further into the top rank of 19th-century agitators. In this richly detailed portrait, Rose stands alongside William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, and Fanny Wright. She combines all their heterodox causes in a platform career of remarkable range from Boston to New York, from Bangor, Maine, to Cleveland. Throughout it all, she is likely to leave readers wondering: How did she find the wherewithal for such consistent nonconformity, for such immodest dissent — to be repeatedly singled out as “a minority of one”? Or, as Anderson asks at one point, “where did she find the backbone” for her audacity?
The story Rose came to tell about her lifelong rebellion began with her emancipation from Judaism. Born Ernestine Potowska, “a child of Israel” in “crushed Poland,” she recorded few memories at all of her mother, but recalled her father as a well-respected and dedicated rabbi. Having no other children, he treated her to some degree as “a surrogate son,” allowing her more latitude in the study of Hebrew and the Torah than most girls enjoyed. In later reminiscences, Rose saw herself as having quickly turned that education to her own advantage, asking pointed questions about God, scripture, and ritual observance. This perplexity alarmed her rabbi father and made him demand all the more insistently her obedience to tradition.
Paternal pressure, however, only intensified her doubts. By the age of 12, Rose had decided to experiment with violating the Sabbath, and, when that sacrilege seemed to go without divine notice, she considered her final break “with the God of Moses” and “with any personal God” only a matter of time. A few years later, the breach was complete, punctuated by her refusal of a marriage that her father had arranged when she was 15 — a snub that jeopardized her inheritance. Prevailing in court against the man to whom her father had contracted her, she left for Berlin in 1827 at 17, and pursued her liberal education far from her old synagogue. This youthful revolt served as her original template for enlightenment and emancipation — the move from the confines of religious authority to the universality of equal rights, enjoyed “without distinction of sect, party, sex, or color.” As painful as this familial cleavage was, it effectively steeled her against community reproach and social stigma.
After a couple of years in Berlin, where she read voraciously and made ends meet selling perfumes, Rose made her way to Paris and then, in 1831, to London. Quickly settling into Europe’s largest city, she taught German and Hebrew, even as she sought to master English. Drawn to the socialist reforms of Robert Owen, she wholeheartedly embraced his activism, which championed labor, improved education, and women’s rights. Owenite radicalism was the vehicle of Rose’s vocational awakening to a life of political protest and advocacy. It was in these circles that she found the model for women braving the lecture platform despite being labeled “she-devils” and “whores.” It was through this coterie, too, that she met her future husband, William Rose, a silversmith who shared Owen’s vision and who was ready to support his wife’s scandalous public pursuits. They married in 1836 and immediately headed to the United States, where they planned to help spread the Owenite message.
Arriving in New York City, the couple oriented themselves by joining a small freethinking society known as the “Moral Philanthropists,” a “congregation of Atheists,” as one city guidebook called the group. The Moral Philanthropists facilitated Rose’s introduction to fellow radicals and infidels. It did not take her long to become a recognized presence in these ranks. By the early 1840s, she had become a notorious orator promoting women’s freedom and equality in tandem with a freethinking skepticism about the Bible and Christianity.
In a suffrage movement dominated by reform-minded Protestants, Rose entreated women “never to enter a church again. Countenance them not. They oppress you. They prevent progression.” That polemic against religion set Rose apart and often provoked strong opposition even from fellow activists (to say nothing of the riotous jeers it produced from those hostile to the women’s rights movement). A half century later, Elizabeth Cady Stanton would court Protestant outrage with similar daring, offering up her own Woman’s Bible, but Rose pointed the way.
The same dynamic was at work in Rose’s antislavery activities: she was a rare infidel in the company of radical Christians like William Lloyd Garrison and Lucretia Mott. Joining the lecture circuit with Frederick Douglass, she gained the high esteem of the abolitionist community despite the homage she consistently paid to Tom Paine’s unvarnished irreverence. Her platform eloquence and her tenacious commitment to equality — “white and black, man and woman” — ultimately won her acceptance from most of her colleagues. From the 1840s into the 1860s, she could be counted on as a leading agitator for the rights and liberties of women and African Americans. Crisscrossing 23 states, she spoke her mind even when it meant facing down a mob. During a lecture in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1853, for example, her criticism of the Bible drew out the hooligans. Shaking the Bible in their faces, she declared them to be “fit representatives of your book, you illustrate your religion by your mobocracy!”
Anderson pieces together Rose’s itinerant career with the studious patience of an admiring biographer. Rose did not leave Anderson much intimate material — no diaries or journals; even her surviving letters serve primarily as records of her public labors, not introspective reflections. Anderson dwells on Rose’s robust radicalism, but acknowledges the places in which she held her agitation in check. She steered clear of debates over contraception, for example, and strenuously defended monogamous marriage as a civil institution to deflect the charge of Free Love. Indeed, Rose’s own long and harmonious marriage was one of the few things that provided her some cover as she campaigned for women’s access to the ballot, changes in divorce laws, and equal property rights. Anderson does not have the sources — or the interpretive ambition — to change the larger narrative about women’s rights, antislavery, or secularism by much, but her picture of Rose is consistently drawn with clarity and color.
By the time Rose moved back to London in 1867, her health had become a recurring challenge. She had lost much of her energy for the lecture circuit and had ceded leadership to other activists such as Anthony and Stanton. When she and William briefly returned to the United States in 1873 and 1874, she was honored more for what she had done than what she was still doing — a retired heroine who deserved remembrance with tributes and portraiture.
Those encomiums smoothed away some of Rose’s edges, but not all of them. Time and again labeled an outsider — Polish, Jewish, foreign, atheistic — Rose could not be mainstreamed even by her most ardent admirers. Knowing that some of her fellow reformers wanted to keep their distance from her as a Jewish infidel, Rose had sought comfort from Anthony, who responded with a line from a hymn, “All Equal before God.” That pious affirmation only added to Rose’s feelings of isolation. Realizing the failure of her gesture, Anthony concluded of her comrade: “Mrs. Rose is not appreciated nor cannot be by this age — She is too much in advance of the extreme ultraists even, to be understood by them.” It is not a judgment a historian wants to indulge — someone ahead of her time — but, with Rose, it almost has a ring of truth to it.