- The Rabbi's Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer by Bonnie S. Anderson
In recent years, multifaceted treatments of antebellum women's rights have transformed a narrative once dominated by Seneca Falls. A renewed [End Page 197] turn to biography among historians of American women in general has further added to knowledge of activists and ideology. Like recent treatments of Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (among others), Bonnie S. Anderson's biography of the remarkable Ernestine Potowska Rose explores a once-famous activist and utilizes her life to offer new insights about the movement for rights in antebellum America and beyond. Anderson's engaging biography offers a transatlantic portrait of Rose's attempts to argue throughout her life that women's rights are human rights and for "'the recognition of human rights, without distinction of sect, party, sex, or color'" (22).
Anderson both succinctly and movingly chronicles Rose's extraordinary life, one that she argues was shaped by "her unusual ability to recreate herself in opposition to conditions she deplored" (11). Born in Poland with a rabbi for a father, Rose was affronted by the gender disparities within and beyond her religious community. Though her father taught her Hebrew despite such instruction being prohibited, they battled nonetheless over religious orthodoxy, woman's place, and, ultimately, her father's attempt to arrange a marriage for her when she was just fifteen. Somewhat astonishingly, she won her case in court, but she found that her recently widowed father's remarriage had made a return home intolerable. Having already renounced Judaism, Rose left Poland to create a new life, first in Berlin and then Paris and London, making and selling room deodorizers as a means to support herself. (This, Anderson notes, formed the backdrop for her later commitment to married women's property rights.) In England she met and much admired Robert Owen; his free-thought ideology provided her a new lens with which to view the world. She met fellow Owenite William Rose, who she married in 1836 before the pair emigrated to the United States. There, she quickly became involved in free thought, antislavery, and women's rights. Rose, notably, was the only foreign-born activist among the group of prominent antebellum women's-rights activists. She spoke at their conventions throughout the 1850s, and, Anderson convincingly argues, helped shape the emerging movement.
What about Rose enabled her to develop, hold, and espouse radical ideas in the face of large-scale public disapproval? To be a woman's-rights woman, Anderson notes, required "an immense imaginative and moral journey" (6). For Rose, that journey was marked by her outsider status as a foreigner with an internationalist perspective, an atheist Jew, and, importantly, an Owenite free-thinking "Infidel." These, Anderson [End Page 198] convincingly shows, made her path into woman's rights distinct, markedly different from those who came into the movement through religious experience or antislavery. Later, her extreme disunion views and staunch criticism of Lincoln further made her stand out, as did a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the United States. Shortly after the post-Civil War split between women's-rights organizations, Rose and her husband returned to Europe. American activists continued nominating her for committees and assumed she would soon return, but minus one mid-1870s trip to the United States, she stayed abroad, choosing to remain in England even after William's sudden death in 1882.
In her lifetime, Anderson demonstrates, Rose was famous, and early on, even more so than Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Now, she is largely unknown. She certainly did not amass the print record that has allowed scholars to carefully chronicle the lives, labors, and beliefs of Stanton or Anthony. Anderson maximizes her use of three lengthy interviews of Rose, whose only printed work was A Defense of Atheism (1861). Her private life remains surprisingly obscure, however, and the reader is left wishing there was more in the record to allow Anderson to re...