Ernestine Louise Rose
In observance of Jewish Women's History Month, it is fitting to honor the woman who must be counted as America's first identifiable Jewish feminist: Ernestine Louise Rose. Rose left her mark on many of the significant social and political-reform causes of the turbulent 19th century. She also set the tone for the critique of Judaism's traditional attitudes toward women brought by today's Jewish feminists.
Born in Russian Poland in 1810, the only child of a rabbi who had married the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Ernestine was a questioning child, observing of herself, "I was a rebel at the age of five." According to historian Janet Freedman, around this time Ernestine began "to question the justice of a G-d who would exact hardships such as her father's frequent religious fasts." When she readied 14, according to Freedman, she "rejected both the idea that women were interior to men and the Jewish texts and traditions that supported this belief," even as she retained her pride in being a Jewish woman.
Two years later, Ernestine's mother died, and her father arranged her marriage to a young man of his choosing. Ernestine refused to cooperate. She boldly traveled several hours in severe weather to get the marriage contract dissolved in a civil court. She left home in 1827 at the age of 17.
Ernestine traveled to Berlin, where she found herself the victim of an anti-Semitic law that required every newly arrived non-Prussian Jew to have a Prussian sponsor. Unwilling to suffer this affront, Ernestine, still a teenager, appealed directly to the king, who exempted her. Around this time, Ernestine invented a room deodorizer that she sold to support herself while she continued her travels. She visited Belgium, Holland, France and England, where in 1832 she met Robert Owen, a renowned utopian socialist. Ernestine stayed in England for three years, lecturing alongside Owen on the principles of human equality. In 1832, she married a man of her own choosing, an Owenite and jeweler named William Ella Rose, and in 1836 the couple moved to New York.
The Roses arrived at a time when slavery which Ernestine Rose considered an abomination, was dividing the nation. She lectured throughout the Northeast, supporting abolition and such other causes as religious toleration, public education and equality for women. With great courage, Rose traveled to the South to speak out against slavery. One slaveholder told her he would have tarred and feathered her If she had been a man. Rose also traveled to Michigan, where she was the first woman to publicly demand that women there be given the vote.
In the 1840s and 1850s, Ernestine Rose joined the pantheon of great American women - Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Paulina Wright and Sojourner Truth - who fought both for women's rights and against slavery. In 1854, Rose advocated for a New York state law allowing married women to retain their own property and have equal guardianship, with their husbands, of their own children. It took the legislature 15 years to adopt these now widely accepted standards.
When slavery was constitutionally abolished, many reform-minded male politicians urged that women set aside their agitation for suffrage and focus on establishing rights for the former slaves. Rose was among the most outspoken critics of this approach. She proclaimed, "Emancipation from every kind of bondage is my principle."
Despite her disagreement with traditional Jewish attitudes toward women, Rose never abandoned her pride in being Jewish and spoke out against anti-Semitism with the same fervor she brought to the anti-slavery and women's suffrage movements. When the editor of the Boston Investigator charged that Jews were "a troublesome people to live in proximity with" and hoped that they would not increase in number in America, Rose replied that,
Rose died in England in 1892. She never ceased working for human rights and social justice. Rabbi Jonas Bondi praised Rose with what could be a fitting epitaph: "She was the earliest and noblest among the workers in the cause of human enfranchisement in the United States."
Source: American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS).