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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Rose 200th birthday celebration inspires conversation about activism

Published: February 5, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

celebrating activism: WSRC scholar Paula Doress-Worters spoke about the activist Ernestine L. Rose who was born 200 years ago this week.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Paula Hoekstra/The Hoot</i>Thursday marked the 200th birthday of Ernestine Rose, and the Women’s Studies Research Center celebrated with a party worthy of the activist, who spent her life fighting for human rights.

Paula Doress-Worters, a WSRC scholar and author of a book about Rose, presided over the affair, speaking about activism, what causes people to become activists and what they actually do.

Doress-Worters joked about Rose coming back for a visit, and, as she was speaking, there was a knock on the door. Anne Gottlieb, another WSRC scholar, came in dressed as Rose and addressed the group. She spoke about the importance of the work she did, and its relevance to today’s society. The information and many quotes in her speech were pulled from letters and speeches that Doress-Worters collected in her new book, “Mistress of Herself: Speeches and Letters of Ernestine L. Rose.”

Rose lived from 1810 to 1892 and immigrated to the United States from Poland in her twenties, after breaking off her arranged engagement. From the beginning, she was politically and socially active on the Lower East Side. She started by campaigning for a New York State Assembly bill that would give married women equal property rights.

Living in the United States during the Civil War and the fight against slavery, Rose was an outspoken abolitionist. She abhorred the idea of one person owning another, citing the Declaration of Independence’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for why humans are their own “legitimate masters.”

Rose was one of the first activists to believe in the idea that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights, an idea currently espoused by people such as Hillary Rodham Clinton. She believed that women were capable of everything men were capable of, and that they deserved equal treatment under the law and in society.

Gottlieb’s speech, prepared by Doress-Worter, was followed by a dialogue between the author and the birthday party attendees about what it means to be an activist and how they became activists.

“Am I an activist? I don’t know, I probably have been all my life… it’s part of who I am,” one woman said. “I don’t think of myself as a feminine activist. I just live it out.”

“I never actually decided to be an activist,” another said. “It came out of my research and my writing. One thing lead to another, and I became a scholar activist.”

As Rose herself once said, “Our individual stories are not as important as the fact that we lived, and we fought, and we sometimes won.”

One woman didn’t want to come to a birthday party without a gift. She brought a check to renew her membership in the Ernestine Rose Society and a card that the 15 scholars, researchers and activists all signed. The card held a sentimental message that was echoed by everyone in the room: “Even though you’re gone from our day to day lives, you’re always in our hearts.”

There is much to be learned from a woman like Ernestine Rose, who left everything she knew to come to a different country and fight for equal rights for all people, said Doress-Worters. Everyone has the power to be an activist and can easily accomplish that through a little bit of work and a lot of passion.