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The lasting influence of Ernestine Rose

Published: March 16, 2012
Section: Features


Paula Doress-Worters, founding co-author of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” came to the Women’s Study Research Center (WSRC) at Brandeis University to explore a long-standing interest in Ernestine Rose. Honoring feminist week at Brandeis, Doress-Worters’ lecture on the 19th-century woman’s rights advocate Ernestine Rose was timely and relevant.
Ernestine Rose, daughter of Rabbi Perchozka, was born in 1810 in Poland and soon sent to school at the age of five. She had the benefit of attending a progressive school established by German Jews. Soon after becoming enrolled she was punished for an infraction she was unaware of committing. Out of protest, Rose stopped attending school. She went on to study with her father, something she insisted on doing in Hebrew. Together they learned Talmudic texts. Through those sessions she developed the ability to ask critical questions about the texts.
As she got older her questions became: “Are you sure God said this?” This eventually prompted Rose to state: “I was a rebel at eight and a heretic at 15.” Rose’s curiosity concerning these religious matters inspired her to question the norm. This set her up for a career as a voice for women’s advocacy.
She was first driven to win when her father planned an arranged marriage for her. Rose insisted that she should marry for love. Rose continued to fight for the freedom to marry for love for the duration of her life. She succeeded and her arranged marriage was annulled. Rose then proceeded to move to Berlin.
Berlin, to Rose, was a city of opportunity. When she encountered the anti-Semitic policy, however, that forbid Jews from entering the city unless involved with a larger group, or bringing a lot of cattle, she protested. She went in front of the court and fought for her entry into Berlin, separate from the group of Jews already present. Rose also won that battle.
Rose was an academic and was multi-lingual. The first job that she took up when she moved was as a language tutor. Rose was also particularly inventive. While in Berlin she invented her own fragrance and proceeded to move to England with the success of the scent’s sales. While living in England she met her husband, William Ella Rose, as well as Robert Own, who soon became her mentor. Rose and her husband then immigrated to the United States.
They moved to the Lower East Side where the residents spoke freely. Her husband began his work as a silversmith. Their move also marked the start of Rose’s 30 years of activism in the United States. There was, however, no organized women’s rights movement at the time. Together Rose and her husband fought for women’s property rights. She came across a forum of free thought versus scripture. Rose was the only woman to debate in this forum. Her presence became public knowledge, gaining the attention of press and reporters.
During this time period, possessing a public view on femininity without being particularly pious painted a woman as a prostitute; because of this Rose was considered to be of a lower status than the Jews. Yet Rose fought on, coming across many more opportunities to debate topics with different leaders—religious and secular—within women’s rights activists. By the Seneca Falls Convention, an early and influential women’s rights meeting, Rose had been traveling all over the country. After the Seneca Falls Convention there were women’s rights conferences.
Rose made what some called the “unforgettable speech” that focused on the four areas that are essential for women: education, occupation, legal rights and political rights. Rose attended a lecture by Horace Mann and this began her next debate, this time through the medium of paper. After the two lectures by Mann, Rose wrote two papers on his lectures and her perspective of what he said.
Rose was considered a bridge-builder because she brought freethinking to a secular time, which she reinforced constantly at conferences. She also brought women’s rights to the forefront of people’s minds through papers and conferences.