If she were alive today, Ernestine Rose, a 19th century radical, would have participated in the 21 January 2017 Women’s March. The mass protest spawned sister rallies around the globe and drew more than a million participants who brandished signs proclaiming desires for equal rights, not just for women, but for all people. These tenets were integral to Rose’s life, and she fought for them throughout her life.
In the 1850s, Ernestine Rose was one of the most famous women in the United States—far better known than her co-workers, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. An outstanding orator in an era when women seldom spoke publicly, she had an international as well as a national reputation. “Her eloquence is irresistible,” a British socialist wrote, “It shakes, it awes, it thrills, it melts—it fills you with horror, it drowns you with tears.” In the early US women’s movement, audiences cried out for her when bored. “I was infinitely relieved when Mrs Ernestine L. Rose took the floor,” a female journalist wrote in 1860. She continued:
A good delivery, a forcible voice, the most uncommon good sense, a delightful terseness of style, and a rare talent for humor are the qualifications which so well fit this lady for a public speaker. In about two minutes she managed to infect her two-thousand-fold audience with a spirit of interest—an audience which mere dry morals and reason had succeeded in reducing to a comatose state.
Rose believed in fighting for her beliefs. “‘Agitate! agitate!’ Ought to be the motto of every reformer,” she proclaimed. “Agitation is the opposite of stagnation—the one is life, the other death.” She supported three main causes: women’s rights, antislavery, and free thought. All were unpopular in her day. She faced angry mobs, hostile threats, and insulting put-downs. “We know of no object more deserving of contempt, loathing, and abhorrence than a female atheist,” a clergyman wrote about her before she gave an antislavery speech in Portland, Maine. “We hold the vilest strumpet from the stews to be by comparison respectable.” But nothing stopped her. From her arrival in New York City in 1836, she worked for women’s equal rights, carrying a petition around lower Manhattan so wives could possess their own property (the law then held that everything a wife earned or owned belonged to her husband). Within a few months, she began debating with other freethinkers at Tammany Hall. By the 1840s, she lectured against slavery, first in South Carolina. A member of her audience threatened to give her “a coat of tar and feathers” and a friend later wrote that “it required considerable influence to get her safely out of the city.”
Her efforts for women’s rights, free thought, and abolition are all the more remarkable because she had traveled so far to become an American radical. She was born the only child of a Polish rabbi. She lost her faith in her early teens, so to “bind her more closely to the bosom of the synagogue,” her father betrothed her against her will. The marriage contract held that if she did not go through with the wedding, her fiancé would receive the inheritance left her by her mother. At 17, the girl went by sleigh to a Polish court, pleaded her own case, and won. She then left her family, Poland, and Judaism forever. Living in Berlin and then Paris, she spent five years in London, where she became a follower of the radical industrialist Robert Owen and met her husband, the silversmith William Rose. They moved to New York and lived there until 1869, when they returned to London. Until illness overcame her in her early 70s, she agitated for her beliefs. The only one she lived to see enacted was the abolition of slavery.
In many ways, her values were the opposite of Donald Trump’s. Always called a “foreigner,” she believed in the rights of immigrants like herself. She consistently held that all people, “black and white, men and women,” were equal and so should have equal rights. “White men are a minority in this country,” she declared. “White women, black men and black women compose the large majority.” Trump and his father refused to rent to blacks into the 1970s. Rose defended prostitutes as victims of male desire; Trump justified men’s sexual attacks on women. Rose argued that all people, “the Christian, the Mahomatan, the Jew, the Deist and the Atheist” can “reform the laws so as to have perfect freedom of conscience.” Trump’s campaign denigrated Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, and the disabled.
Rose never ceased “agitating” for her beliefs. So I am sure that if she were alive today, she would have marched. Her example inspires us to both remember her legacy and follow it, to battle together for our rights and the rights of others. It is the only way we can reform the world.
Featured image credit: DC Women’s March by Liz Lemon. Public Domain via Flickr.