Restoring a feminist's legacy

Ernestine Rose left her Jewish upbringing and became a revolutionary thinker in the 19th century.

Ernestine Rose recognized that ‘woman’s rights simply means ‘human rights.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ernestine Rose recognized that ‘woman’s rights simply means ‘human rights.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter is a thickly written biography of a woman who ran far from her traditional Orthodox Jewish upbringing in Poland and became a pioneer in the international feminist arena. Her colleagues in this work included Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Most people have never heard of Ernestine Rose, the book’s subject, despite the fact that in her prime she was better known than her colleagues whose names are much more familiar. This historical oversight is what author Bonnie S. Anderson intends to correct with The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter.
Ernestine Rose was born Ernestine Potowsky on January 13, 1810, as a Jew, a Pole and female, a circumstance Anderson refers to as “three oppressive situations.” Despite these strikes against her, Rose’s intelligence and unusually strong character shaped her entire life, starting from age five.
In the chapter titled “Self-Creation,” which includes details about Rose’s childhood, Anderson relates numerous incidents, many involving the limitations placed on her by virtue of her femaleness, that are painful to read. For example, Rose was an only child and her father, Rabbi Potowsky, reportedly treated her as “a surrogate son, teaching Ernestine Hebrew in depth and having her intensively study Torah.” Nevertheless, she was forbidden to ask questions because “her father declared that ‘little girls must not ask questions.’” It’s not hard to understand how this kind of dispiriting parental treatment led Rose to “[renounce] her belief in the Bible and the religion of her father,” at age 14.
She lived the rest of her life as an avowed atheist.
In a desperate attempt to reconnect her to Judaism, when she was 15, “her father betrothed her to a man of his choosing,” with the stipulation that if she did not marry the man her father chose, she would lose the majority of her inheritance from her recently deceased mother.
Rose fought against this by arguing her case in a Polish civil court, understanding well that she had no chance of winning against her father and her fiancé in a rabbinic court.
She won her case.
Shortly after her legal victory, her father remarried a young wife, roughly the same age as his daughter. With that, Rose left Poland for a sequence of major European cities, including Berlin, Paris and London.
In London, Rose met Robert Owen, a political activist whose work was close to her heart. He was 61. She was 22, and in her, Owen found a perfect disciple. We later learn that her connection with Robert Owen and his followers, called Owenites, led the then Ernestine Potowsky to meet her future husband, William Rose.
United over a shared lack of belief in God, Ernestine the apostate Jew married William Rose, the fellow non-Jewish freethinker.
Convinced that the United States was “a better place to build a new society,” the young couple left London and settled in New York, where they lived and worked for the next 33 years. In subsequent chapters, all written with an academic historian’s hand, Anderson details Ernestine Rose’s rise from the protégé of a paternalistic European political activist to a leader in the 19th century women’s movement.
The kinds of things Rose, who was, by all accounts, a powerful and popular public speaker, fought for seem anachronistic nearly 150 years later. Speaking in Great Britain in 1870 against the opinion of a well-heeled Englishwoman who argued that women should neither hold public office nor participate in politics, Rose informed her audience that: “There [in the United States] it is almost a settled fact that a woman is a human being; that she has a mind, and that that mind requires cultivation; that she has wants and needs, which wants and needs require assistance. Hence we are over there – don’t be frightened at the name – a “woman’s rights” people... and remember that ‘woman’s rights’ simply means ‘human rights.’” In this comment, which appears to have been made somewhat spontaneously and was not part of a formal, prepared address, one can sense Rose’s intelligence and even a touch of wit.
After a lifetime of pioneering work on behalf of women’s rights and liberal causes, Rose died childless at the age of 82. Her beloved husband had died suddenly 10 years before and she appears to have spent the last decade of her life largely isolated, infirm and somewhat depressed.
The book shows evidence of exhaustive research and is marked by an extraordinary level of detail. As an example, Anderson specifies the renovations that were completed on a mansion in London where Rose spent time teaching Hebrew to four daughters of an aristocratic family. For readers with a keen interest in the 19th century, this level of detail is engaging.
The non-academic reader might prefer to skim over details such as the address of the Roses’ first apartment in New York or the name and family connections of the head of the Edinburgh Women’s Suffrage Society in 1871. For most readers who are trying to understand the general arc of Rose’s life story, this level of detail becomes tedious and leads to skimming.
With 46 pages of notes and a nine-page bibliography, it’s easy to understand why the book was published by a university press. Nevertheless, for the general reader, hidden among its hundreds of details, the book reveals a fascinating and heretofore unknown chapter in Jewish women’s history.