Ernestine Rose: Nineteenth-Century Freethought Firebrand

Wayne L. Trotta

The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer, by Bonnie S. Anderson (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2016, ISBN 978-0-19-975624-7). 231 pp. Hardcover, $34.95.

If you are a student of nineteenth-century freethought or of the early women’s rights movement, then you have probably come across the name Ernestine Rose more than once and determined to find out more about her. You probably turned to The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief and found there a highly useful article by Carol Kolmerten that served to further whet your appetite for the full-length biography. But no such biography was to be found.

Until now, that is. With her new book, The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer, emerita professor of history at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, Bonnie S. Anderson has filled a long-standing and somewhat embarrassing gap in the history of North American civil rights activism.

Born in Poland on January 13, 1810, Ernestyna Louise Potowska showed remarkable courage from an early age. When she was only sixteen, her father and mentor, Rabbi Potowski, betrothed her to an older man whom she had no interest in marrying. Under Polish law, her failure to honor this engagement entitled the man to keep the substantial inheritance willed to Ernestyna by her recently deceased mother. So, the girl hired a sleigh and driver to take her the sixty-five miles to the district capital, Kalisz, where she proceeded to successfully argue in court that she should not lose her legacy because of an agreement she did not want and had no voice in making. This triumph became, as Anderson says, the “foundation story of her self-created adult identity as an advocate for personal independency and women’s equal rights.”

Like many feminists, Ernestine in her adult life had little to say about her mother. Her father, however, was a steady presence in her formative years. The rabbi taught his daughter to read Hebrew and guided her in the study of the Torah, thus providing her with the core of an educational curriculum normally reserved for sons. But young Ernestyna’s independence of mind caused her to question even biblical authority, and she continued to do so despite her father’s remonstrance that it was not a little girl’s place to ask questions. By age fourteen, however, she had decided that she could no longer believe things she could neither see nor hear and that made no sense to her. From that time on, she never lost her atheist beliefs.

When Ernestyna was about seventeen, her father took a new bride who was not much older than his daughter. The situation was awkward for Ernestyna, to say the least, and she eventually decided it was time for her to leave. She left behind most of her inheritance, taking only what she thought she would need to maintain herself. This seems like a remarkable thing for her to have done, especially since she had fought hard to keep that money, and, with a new wife and new dowry, her already financially comfortable father would not have needed it. The extra money might also have allowed Ernestyna to travel in such a way as to avoid some of the well-known dangers facing a woman traveling alone. It seems that the book could have said more about this decision, but Anderson lets it pass without comment.

After settling for a while in Berlin and then Paris, Ernestine (Anderson begins using this form of her name after Ernestyna left home) journeyed to London, where she met her beloved and devoted lifelong partner, William Rose. Little is known about Rose (he was not Jewish, despite the name), except that he worked as a jeweler and silversmith, was not highly educated, and shared and fully supported Ernestine’s atheism, feminism, and abolitionism. Both also became committed to the communitarian thought of Robert Owen, the wealthy and benevolent English industrialist who taught that the three evils keeping humankind enslaved consisted of private property, religion, and the contemporary laws governing marriage and divorce.

In 1833, the Roses emigrated to New York City, where they lived until returning to London in 1869. New York had become a haven for British freethinkers and was home to a radical Owenite group that formed the core of what was known as the Moral Philanthropists Society. These nonreligious humanists held their meetings at Tammany Hall, where they drew standing-room-only crowds to their debates on religion and society. Ernestine’s oratorical skills first became evident in these debates, and she soon gained recognition through New York’s Owenite publication, the Beacon, although the paper initially referred to her only as “a Polish lady” to protect her from the attacks routinely leveled at any female freethinker who dared to lecture in public. By 1844, the Boston Investigator was praising Ernestine for her “extraordinary powers to enchain the minds of an audience.” Also in that year, the Roses began organizing a national convention of freethinkers (soon dubbed the Infidel Convention) in honor of Owen, who was then visiting the United States. By mid-century, Ernestine’s oratory on behalf of freethought and women’s rights had made her more famous than Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony.

Despite her fame, Ernestine often referred to herself as a “minority of one.” She was many times the only woman on the dais or the only woman to deliver a speech. She was nearly always both the only foreigner and the only atheist featured at a given convention. Most of the early abolitionists and feminists were Christians, but, if the abolitionists drew their support from the Bible, Ernestine was there to remind them that so, too, did the slaveholder. If women’s rights advocates found inspiration in Christianity, so, too, did women’s oppressors. For such sentiments, Anthony was admonished by one of the movement’s preeminent male figures to remove Ernestine from all future convention platforms. “Did we banish Mrs. Rose?” Anthony mused. “No, indeed!”

Ernestine was willing to dial it back a bit, however, in order to preserve her place in the feminist movement. She considered all religion to be superstition and nothing more, but she reserved expressing such sentiments—mostly—to her freethought audiences. In doing so, she sacrificed none of her oratorical power. At the Worcester Convention in 1850, shortly after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, Ernestine drew the comparison between woman’s status and that of the runaway slave: “If a woman is compelled by the tyranny and ill treatment of her husband, to leave him . . . the law will deliver her up into his hands.” The laws, she asserted, “must be made equally for both.”

In truth, for Ernestine, freethought, women’s rights, and abolitionism were all of a piece. When some of the pious objected that infidels such as her should not be permitted to meddle with the slavery question, she connected the dots for them, declaring that her infidelity was nothing less than “UNIVERSAL MENTAL FREEDOM!” (emphasis in original) and asking, “How can slavery exist with universal mental freedom which wages war upon all oppression?”

Naturally, Ernestine endured her share of heckling. At the Hartford convention in 1853, some students from a nearby theological seminary disrupted her speech with hissing, shouting, name-calling, and demands that she go home. To settle things down, the gas lights throughout the hall were extinguished. But, as a female participant recalled, when the lights came back on, there was Ernestine, with a Bible in her hands, standing in all her “fearless majesty!” She shook the book in the faces of the gallery students, exclaiming, “Yes, you are fit representatives of your book, you illustrate your religion by your mobocracy!” She then went on to deliver a scathing disco
urse on religion’s enslavement of the human mind.


Why has it taken so long for us to have a biography of this impressive, courageous woman? Was it her Jewishness, her foreignness, her faithlessness? In part, it may be because Ernestine herself published very little in her lifetime beyond her small book, A Defense of Atheism. She claimed that she never spoke from notes, and no doubt she was quite capable of delivering ex tempore at will. But neither is there any doubt that she wrote out many of her speeches, at least some of which were collected in 2000 for a PhD thesis. Perhaps modesty played a role. For all her polemical prowess and national reputation, Ernestine never requested or accepted a speaker’s fee, and, when Anthony asked her for information about her for Anthony’s History of Woman Suffrage, Ernestine replied that she had “nothing to refer to” and had “never spoken from notes.” It is hard to explain, though, why she would deny her longtime friend, especially when she freely gave copies of her speeches to others of her acquaintance. Perhaps not modesty but ego was at work here, moving the orator to craft her legacy as that of a speaker too gifted to ever rely on what might be regarded as the nineteenth-century equivalent of the teleprompter. We simply don’t know, and, once again, Anderson moves on without comment.

Certainly, the simplest explanation, as Anderson notes, is that we just don’t have the records. Poland was a country in turmoil at the time of Ernestine’s birth, and most of the recorded data we would like to have is missing and, most likely, gone forever. Of William’s early years in London, no records or reminiscences seem to exist. Thus we are left, of necessity, with a relatively short biography. Still, this is a more than serviceable telling of the life of a true champion in the history of freethought. While we might wish that the author would have ventured a bit more speculation here and there, Ernestine Rose’s story is one that needed to be told and deserves to be more widely known.

Wayne L. Trotta

Wayne L. Trotta is a psychologist and frequent  reviewer for Free Inquiry.

Review of The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer, by Bonnie S. Anderson

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