TS Interviews—Dead Freethinkers’ Edition: Ernestine Rose
This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing scientists, skeptics, and freethinkers about life, the universe, and everything.
Ernestine Rose (1810–1892) was one of the most powerful voices for women’s rights in the nineteenth century. She was a freethinking feminist atheist from very early in her life, in an era when being such took no small amount of guts. Her writing and speaking not only influenced other famous activists, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, it led to victories for equality. For example, she was the first to circulate a petition for women’s rights, in 1836, when she petitioned the NY State Legislature to give property rights to married women. It took 12 years of persistence, but New York eventually passed the law, setting a precedent other states would soon follow.
In this interview, I sit down to chat with zombie Ernestine. (Don’t worry. She isn’t interested in my brains or anyone else’s—she’s got plenty of her own.) We talk about her experiences as a child and a young woman in rebelling against religion, misogyny, and bigotry, as well as her thoughts on her later work and on why she isn’t as well known as other activists of her time, despite her monumental influence.
Were you always a freethinker? Do you remember when that first developed in you?
Well, technically, I was born an atheist. I believe that we all are born without a belief in any gods. Religious beliefs are learned. So by age five, I was first aware of doubting my father’s beliefs, even if I wouldn’t be able to fully see myself as free from religion for many years.
He was a rabbi, and he tended to take things to the extreme. He did not simply fast for God—he starved himself. The effects on his body and his mind when he did this were frightening. It made no sense to me that this supposedly all-powerful God would not only allow such suffering but require it. It was sadism.
So you began questioning early on?
Yes, I had the advantage, as a rabbi’s daughter, to get more education than other girls my age (or older, for that matter) through my religious studies. So I read the religious texts in depth, which of course is the first step toward doubt.
It was also my first step toward feminism. I didn’t call it that, but when you are constantly reading about how females, how you, are inherently inferior, how you deserve to be abused, raped, even killed in many circumstances, how can you not ask why? What is this based on, exactly? I found no evidence of any kind to support these ugly views, and no one could provide any evidence to me.
I asked many questions, and this embarrassed my father no end. After my mother died, when I was 16, my father tried to tame me, basically, by arranging a marriage.
[Laughs] Well, I did not love him. I explained this to the man, asking him to let me out of marrying him, but considering the inheritance he stood to gain from marrying me, he just laughed in my face.
So I went to the Polish courts, and they ruled not only that I was not obligated to marry the man, but that I had the right to my inheritance from my mother.
Wow! That’s amazing. Why do you think they ruled in favor of a woman? Wasn’t that unusual?
The outcome was fortunate, but the reasons behind it are ugly. The Polish court was notoriously anti-Semitic, so I think that played a role in their not honoring the wishes of my Jewish father and my suitor.
That must have made things tense with your dad.
To say the least. But I was used to that. What really made living there unbearable was when he married a girl my age.
Yes, that was the last straw. I ended up moving to Berlin, and I was shocked by its ridiculous limitations on the work Jewish people could do, where we could live and for how long, even where and when we could go within the city.
I can’t really picture you putting up with that. Did you leave?
[Laughs] No. That was not acceptable. I demanded an audience with the King of Prussia.
The King of Prussia. Right. Of course. Obvious next step. [Laughs] Did he see you?
Believe it or not, he did. And I convinced him to make an exception. I was allowed to do whatever work I wanted and stay as long as I desired. So I tutored and invented this perfumed paper. You would not believe the smells in some of these tenements, with so many people having to live close together. So the paper helped with that and enabled me to stay a couple of years, then travel around.
Why did you need to work? Didn’t you have your inheritance?
My inheri—oh, no. I let my father have that. I was never interested in the money. Just my rights.
So how did you end up in the United States?
I lived in England for a while, where I got involved in what Robert Owen was doing, basically activism to improve the daily lives of everyone, a form of socialism. In my mind, equal rights and treatment of women were essential to this movement, so I was involved in more writing and public speaking on that issue, which of course helped to improve my English. I helped Owen found the Association of All Classes of All Nations, which worked for equal rights for all humans, including women, people of all class and color, of all nations—basically, no exceptions.
I was becoming increasingly aware of how all these battles existed in the United States as well, in some ways to even more of an extreme. So after I met and married William [Ella Rose], we decided to go to the United States together, in 1836.
The same year you started that first petition? You didn’t waste any time!
Social justice was in my blood. It was who I was. I think it goes hand in hand with being a freethinker in the first place. I mean, how can you value rational thought without inevitably seeing how much damage irrational biases and prejudices do to people? How can you draw that conclusion and then just sit on your hands? It makes no sense to me.
This is an issue within the freethought community even today, actually.
That breaks my heart. I mean, I understand it, in a way. We are all human. We all have blind spots, those areas where we don’t—where we don’t want to—apply reason to our own beliefs. But it’s one thing to, say, not want to let go of your belief in an afterlife and quite another to leave unchallenged the bigotry in your heart that actively harms other people. It’s shameful.
You dedicated your life to eradicating bigotry and sexism—institutionalized forms and the ways of thinking. Any textbook places you prominently as instrumental in your influence and participation in women’s rights and abolition. Yet your name isn’t as familiar as, say, Susan B. Anthony. Why do you think that it?
Seriously, where’s my coin?! [Laughs] Look, I was an immigrant Jew in a time when the United States was demonizing immigrants, when anyone who wasn’t Protestant was the Other. I was a woman. So I had all these strikes against me, ways of being lesser, being invisible in the eyes of historians. I also never had children, which I don’t regret, but children do tend to carry forward their family’s legacy in ways.
Do you have any advice for young women today?
Do not write yourself off or let others write you off. You have nothing to lose by asking for your audience with the king–you are his equal.
Image credits: The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University; MakeMeZombie.com; Wikimedia Commons.