Growing up, I remember learning of the accomplishments of many people in US and world history and more often than not, those people were men. Women received much less coverage. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that the accomplishments of women have long been minimized, dismissed, or ignored. This is another way that sexism has played out in society. Denying the accomplishments of women is an insult. It treats them as if they’re unimportant…as if they haven’t contributed significantly to events throughout human history. In this ongoing series, I’ll be highlighting notable women, historically important women, and those women who ought to be acknowledged. My intent is to show that women have contributed to the course of human history and ought to be recognized, rather than ignored or overlooked. Ernestine Rose, today’s woman of the day, was a feminist atheist, abolitionist, and major force in the women’s rights movement in the 19th century.
Born in Russian Poland to wealthy parents in 1810, Ernestine Rose (née Ernestine Sismondi) developed a distaste for religion early in life. Her father, a rabbi, would engage in frequent fasts which led to Rose questioning why God would exact such hardships on his followers. By the age of 16, when her mother died, she had rejected the notion of female inferiority and the religious texts supporting the idea. Shortly thereafter, unbeknownst to Rose, her father had betrothed her to a young Jewish friend of his. Not wanting to be married to a man she neither knew nor loved, she traveled to a secular civil court where she pleaded her case herself. The court ruled in her favor, freeing her from her betrothal and ruling that she was entitled to her full inheritance from her mother. She gave her inheritance to her father, keeping enough to allow her to travel, and travel she did.
In Prussia, she protested the antisemitic laws that required non-native Jews to have a sponsor. Her invention of a room deodorizer brought Rose enough money to continue traveling (she would later visit the Netherlands and Paris).
After moving to England in 1831, Ernestine Rose met utopian socialist Robert Dale Owen. With Owen, Ernestine Rose helped found the Association of All Classes of All Nations, an organization that sought full legal equality for all people. She and fellow Owen supporter William Rose married shortly thereafter, and the two of them moved to New York City.
Following her arrival in America, Rose began working on women’s rights. With Paulina Wright and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Rose played a key role in the effort to win women the right to control property they brought into marriage. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1848 successfully passed, and a few years later, Rose helped win another law that granted New York women equal guardianship of their children.
An outspoken and popular advocate for women’s rights, Rose became president of the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1954, and when questioned about her fitness for that role (due to her atheism), she was supported by Susan B. Anthony.
Known as the “Queen of the Platform” for her speeches on women’s rights and public education, Rose was also a strong opponent of slavery. On one visit to speak out against slavery in the South, one newspaper characterized her as “a thousand times below a prostitute”, for her atheism. Her anti-slavery advocacy saw collaborations with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass.
In 1869, after becoming an American citizen, Rose and her husband retired to England. Despite the efforts of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Rose chose to remain in England, where she died in 1892. Susan B. Anthony would later consider Rose a pioneer of the women’s suffrage movement (despite having died decades before women gained the right to vote).