While I made many enchanting discoveries while researching historic women freethinkers for my anthology, Women Without Superstition: No Gods – No Masters, none was more piquant, more startling for me, than the history of Ernestine L. Rose.
Although I considered myself well-informed on the history of U.S. feminism, I had not encountered Rose — an atheist and America’s first canvasser for women’s rights. Yet in her day she was as famous as Gloria Steinem is in ours.
Ernestine Siismondi Potowski was born in 1810 in a Jewish ghetto in Poland. The affectionate only child of an orthodox rabbi, she was constricted both by Judaism and anti-Semitism. She liked to say, “I was a rebel at the age of five.” She hated the religious fasting that sickened her father. When her father once rebuked her for combing her tangled curls on a Saturday (the Sabbath), telling her she was sinning against God, a bewildered Ernestine decided to “ask Him myself.” She left the room and returned a few moments later, saying: “I asked God if it was a sin and He didn’t say anything.”
After taking the unprecedented step of winning a legal document to get out of an arranged marriage at age 17, Ernestine began travels that eventually led her and her supportive new husband to the United States in 1837. Learning that a freethinker, Judge Thomas Hertell, had introduced the Married Woman’s Property Act in 1836, Ernestine went door to door canvassing women to endorse the proposal. It became a suffrage legend that Ernestine had garnered only five signatures in five months. But she never gave up. Other women joined her, and in 1848, the passage of that legislation became a landmark for American women.
Dubbed “Queen of the Platform,” Ernestine devoted her life and meager income to emancipation — for women, abolition and freethought, lecturing in 23 states and addressing legislative bodies urging women’s rights. A close colleague of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, she was on a month-long abolition tour with Anthony in 1854 when the chaplain in Congress refused to let her speak at the Capitol on a Sunday morning because she was a public atheist.
An attempt was made that year at the fifth national woman’s rights convention in Philadelphia to prevent Rose from presiding at the convention, also because of her notoriety as an atheist. William Lloyd Garrison came to her defense with a resolution that the “teachings of the Bible are intensely inimical to the equality of woman with man.” His resolution passed unanimously, along with a resolution praising Rose for her “courtesy, impartiality, and dignity.” Vilified by the religious press, Rose unshakingly faced clergy mobs both at freethought and woman’s rights conventions.
She unstintingly called herself an atheist during an era when the term was often avoided by “Infidels,” and entreated women to reject revelation and the bible. In 1861, she delivered a lecture, “A Defense of Atheism,” in Mercantile Hall, Boston, in which she wisely posited that “all children are Atheists, and were religion not inculcated into their minds they would remain so.”
While her name may have been lost to history for far too long, American women are still profiting from her activism. It is commendable that The Ernestine Rose Society is holding the Ernestine L. Rose Bicentennial Celebration in New York City and Long Island April 25, 27, 2010.