- The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer by Bonnie S. Anderson
In this deeply researched, eloquently crafted volume, Bonnie Anderson brings to life one of the most fascinating, yet elusive, figures of the nineteenth century, Ernestine L. Rose. Known best for her pioneering role in the early years of the United States women’s rights movement, Rose emerges from Anderson’s careful, creative treatment as a complex figure whose politics and identity did not neatly conform to the historical shorthand we have come to rely upon to narrate the nineteenth century.
The rabbi’s atheist daughter was arguably one of the most famous Jews in nineteenth-century reform circles, despite the fact that she rejected Judaism at an early age. Born Ernestine Louise Susmond Potowska in Poland in 1810, Rose and her family were religious minorities in a largely Catholic society. Her father departed from tradition and taught young Ernestine to read Hebrew, a skill typically reserved for sons. Steeped in the study of the Torah, Ernestine engaged in vigorous questioning and debate until her father reversed course and pronounced that “little girls [End Page 577] must not ask questions,” a moment that Rose credited with simultaneously igniting her feminism and her dedication to repudiating religion (13). More than an adolescent rebellion, Rose’s new found atheism would prove to be a lifelong commitment, one that put her at odds with the religious zeal that motivated both abolition and the women’s rights movement. While she rejected Judaism, Rose was unable to elude antisemitism. She battled it throughout her life and at times within the very movements—women’s rights and free thought—to which she dedicated her reform career.
Rose’s early years were peripatetic. She left Poland at age 17, according to her own account, after successfully representing herself in court to break an undesirable engagement and protect her inheritance. She traveled to Berlin and later Paris, where she witnessed the Revolution of 1830. One of the many fresh themes that Anderson brings to light is Rose’s entrepreneurialism. In Berlin, she developed a paper-based room deodorizer that she sold for over a decade to support herself. She mastered German well enough to later support herself giving language lessons in both German and Hebrew. From Paris she moved to London, where she immersed herself in the work of Robert Owen and met her future husband, William Rose. Although Rose left few sources about her private life, Anderson is able to tease out evidence to reconstruct the egalitarian nature of the Rose marriage as well as the emotional and financial support it lent her career.
The bulk of the biography unearths in riveting detail Rose’s extensive reform career from the 1830s to her death in 1892. An exile, an immigrant, a feminist, and an atheist who was also regarded as a Jew, Rose constantly balanced her insider/outsider status within reform communities. Equally inspired by Thomas Paine and Robert Owen, she developed her own unique political perspective. She refused to compartmentalize her commitments to free thought, women’s rights and antislavery, insisting that they were all entwined in one great struggle to end “slavery” in all its manifestations. Rose was nimble in her ability to navigate the various movements she embraced. Despite the fact that Freethinkers were not always abolitionists (due to the religious zeal of abolition); feminists were seldom atheists; Freethinkers were not always feminist; and both Freethinkers and feminists were sometimes anti-immigrant and antisemitic, Rose managed the contradictions, chose her battles wisely, and always developed deep personal connections to her colleagues. “I never expected to be understood in this lifetime,” she told Susan B. Anthony (95).
Rose impressed contemporaries with her striking beauty as well as her magisterial ability to command an audience. Her “genius” as a speaker [End Page 578] permeates the biography, as does the vibrant cultural world of nineteenth-century oratory (144). Anderson vividly captures the dangers inherent in speaking as out an atheist, particularly for women. In Hartford in 1853...