In honor of Ernestine Louise Rose on the anniversary of her birth, January 13th, 1810
Why such a title, you might ask? Feminist. Abolitionist. Immigrant. Socialist. Atheist. Jew. A series of epithets in Rose’s day, they’re still too often used as such. Why be so provocative?
In her life as an activist and orator, Ernestine Rose wasn’t deliberately provocative in any shock-factor sort of way. She wore modest black, gray, and brown dresses, never the bloomers (puffy pants worn under short skirts) that the more ‘radical’ feminists adopted; she never railed against individual capitalists or slaveholders as evil oppressors; she was openly happy in her traditional-style marriage; and while she was not hesitant to respond abruptly, wittily, even sarcastically to insults and bad arguments, she was not given to preemptive personal attacks or calls for violence. Yet in a time when women stayed at home when not accompanied in public by chaperones, she traveled often and often alone; when women were expected to be demure and silent in public, she was a witty, incisive, passionate, and famous public speaker; when most women accepted their assigned roles, she argued and fought for their rights; when slavery was still widely considered acceptable or at a necessary evil, she worked for their emancipation; when many or even most of her fellow feminists did not consider the races and classes equal, she argued that all people should have the same political and social rights; when hierarchical class systems were considered a law of nature, she argued for economic equality; when most people were religious, she was an unapologetic atheist; in an insular and xenophobic Protestant Christian country, she was a cosmopolitan foreigner of Jewish ancestry.
In short, Ernestine was just about as much of an outsider as one could be. Save being black, disabled, gay, or a single woman, she could hardly have belonged simultaneously to more of the marginalized groups of her day, yet even these found in her a champion as well. Feminist, Abolitionist, Immigrant, Socialist, Atheist, Jew can goad us into considering anew why and how these labels are simultaneously uncomfortable reminders of the persistence of prejudice, and remind us that they’re really badges of honor for passionate believers in universal human freedom.
In spite of many obstacles, Ernestine Rose was a renowned public speaker and debater in her own time, and especially acclaimed for her role among the preeminent leaders of the feminist movement. The abolitionist, socialist, pro-immigrant, Jewish, freethinker, and Paineite (devotees to the life and ideas of Thomas Paine, who had become a target of hatred and slander due to his freethought views) communities also benefited from her staunch and tireless work on their behalf. She was widely praised as an orator, her style described as ‘powerful’, ‘eloquent’, ‘intelligent’, and ‘dignified’, and often sold out even the largest halls. When travel plans or one of her many bouts of serious illness kept her from speaking at conventions and other public events, organizers would worry about the possibility of success without her participation. Yet now she is virtually forgotten, more so than just about any other feminist or abolitionist of the time with her level of fame. How did this come to be?
It was, for Rose, a very similar situation as it was for her hero Thomas Paine, hailed as a father of the American Revolution who wrote Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. Both of these great advocates of universal human rights had ideas that were simply too innovative, too outlandish, too challenging for widespread and sustained acceptance. Both inspired great admiration and achieved widespread fame for their abilities and achievements during their lifetime, but after the initial thrill of their progressive ideals wore off, conservative fearmongering that Rose’s and Paine’s ideas would undermine civilized society won the day. Successive generations would come to pick out what they liked from their work and enjoy the benefits, while vilifying Rose and Paine as radicals, corrupters of public morality, and would-be destroyers of civilization.
It’s only within the last fifty years or so that Paine’s reputation (Theodore Roosevelt still referred to him as a ‘filthy little atheist’) has been fully rehabilitated, his contributions widely celebrated. For Ernestine Rose, unjustly in my view, this hasn’t happened. Paine has the advantage of having been a white man, a friend of many of the Founding Fathers of the United States, a believer in free markets, and a deist. For Rose, a woman, a Jew, an atheist, and a socialist, the remnants of bigotry that she so eloquently called on us to overcome still cast a shadow over public memory, as the light of history belatedly re-illuminates the life and work of this extraordinary woman.
To learn more about the great Ernestine Rose, please check out:
About Ernestine Rose ~ by the Ernestine Rose Society at Brandeis University
Ernestine Rose, 1810-1892 ~ by Janet Freedman for the Jewish Women’s Archive
Ernestine Rose: American Social Reformer ~ by the editors for Encyclopædia Britannica
Forgotten Feminisms: Ernestine Rose, Free Radical ~ by Judith Shulevitz for the New York Review of Books’ NYR Daily
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