Ernestine Rose, 1810 – 1892
While the Seneca Falls convention of 1848 is often cited as the formal beginning of the woman suffrage movement, there were many women who devoted their lives to working for equal rights for women long before then. And while these courageous women never lived to see the dream realized, they effectively paved the way for those who came after.
Ernestine Potowski Rose was born January 13, 1810 in Piotrkow, Poland, the daughter of the town’s rabbi. Her mother died when she was a child; she was educated at home by her father, receiving a more comprehensive education than many girls of the time. But even as a young girl she showed a strong belief in the equality of all human beings, railing against restrictions placed upon young Jewish girls. When her father arranged a marriage for her with a man his age she moved to Berlin, and later to England where she married William Rose. The couple moved to the United States in 1836.
Ernestine was fortunate in her choice of husband; both were attracted to progressive causes and both considered themselves “free thinkers.” While William found work as a silversmith, Ernestine began working with other reformists to promote equal property rights for married women. She began a long career of public speaking, travelling frequently to promote religious freedom, public education and the abolition of slavery.
In 1850 she attended the women’s rights convention in Worcester, Massachusetts and began working with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Coffin Mott and Susan B. Anthony, bringing the same passion for equal rights to the suffrage cause. Her speeches were not always well received; her Polish accent, forcible delivery and unswerving passion sometimes drew criticism, and although she no longer considered herself Jewish she often found herself a victim of anti-Semitic abuse. Still, her eloquence and sheer force of character, promoted by her unswerving belief in the equality of men and women drew her more praise than criticism. She became such a successful orator that she was called the “Queen of the Platform,” and her fellow crusaders drew strength from the very traits that others disliked.
She traveled throughout the country, lecturing new immigrants about the need for suffrage in German or French, attending every national women’s rights convention between 1850 and 1869. In 1869 she and her husband returned to England, where she died in 1892.
Despite an active life spent working for social causes, Ernestine Rose was almost forgotten by historians. Perhaps her immigrant status, her religious background, and her refusal to compromise set her apart. She had no family, aside from her husband, and left no papers nor many writings. Historians are just now beginning to research and record her life, a life that was remarkable for the many causes she espoused, but especially for the consistency of her beliefs. As her biographer Carol A. Kolmerten remarked, “Rose was remarkably consistent throughout her life: all human beings, regardless of color or sex, should have the same rights and the same freedoms. It was as simple as that.” Simple indeed.
Happy Birthday, Ernestine Rose!