Ernestine Rose: When Feminism Met Atheism

In my reading about the lives and efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who spearheaded the creation of The Women’s Bible, and Susan B. Anthony, who once said that the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition would be a more educational place to spend a Sunday morning than church, one historical figure has caught my eye time and again: Ernestine Rose, the 19th century feminist atheist. Not to suggest that any of the historical women’s rights leaders are anywhere near as well-known as they should be. Susan B. Anthony is the most famous by far, and even she is often overlooked. But Ernestine Rose was advocating for women’s rights in America more than ten years before Stanton’s Seneca Falls convention, and she was a prominent atheist at a time when that was still quite dangerous.

Like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine Rose started life with an educational advantage over most girls. Born Ernestine Potowski, January 13th, 1910, in Piotkrow, Poland, she was the only child of a prominent rabbi and a wealthy businessman’s daughter. This afforded her the opportunity, rare to young Polish Jewish girls at the time, to study the scriptures in the original Hebrew. She was not impressed. By fourteen she was rejecting scriptural teachings that women were inferior to men and the idea that a just God who would force his followers to fast. Her father was not happy with this rejection.

Young Rose would not allow religion to hold her back, and achieved many a significant legal victory by making use of secular systems. When she, at sixteen, did not want to marry the man her father arranged for her to marry by promising the money Ernestine had inherited from her mother, Rose refused to let rabbinical courts force her to do so, and won her freedom from the arranged marriage and won back her inheritance by bringing her case to a civil court. When she left Poland and arrived in Prussia, she appealed directly to the King of Prussia and was granted an exemption from the law that said Polish Jews coming into the country had to be sponsored by German Jews. While living in Berlin, she supported herself with her own invention, perfumed papers that deodorized rooms.

Rose traveled around Europe before landing, hard, in England. She lost most of her possessions in a shipwreck on her way and had to support herself by teaching languages and selling her deodorizers. It was there, though, that she met the Utopian socialist Robert Owen, with whom she co-founded the Association of All Classes of All Nations, which advocated for the rights of all people no matter where they came from or what sex, race, or class they were. Through this organization, she honed her English and public speaking skills, so that by the time she moved to America in 1836 with her jeweler husband William Ella Rose, she was ready to earn her title, “Queen of the Platform.”

That same year, she brought a petition to the New York State Legislature in support of a married women’s property act a free-thinking judge had submitted. She only got five signatures, but it was the first petition introduced in the legislature in support of the rights of women. Soon, she was going around the country speaking against slavery and in favor of women’s rights, with Stanton, Anthony, and many other women. At times, this proved somewhat dangerous, as when she barely escaped Charleston, West Virginia, with her life. Even in Maine, a local newspaper called her, as a female atheist, “a thousand times below a prostitute.” Similar sentiments followed her throughout her life. Susan B. Anthony had to come to her defense in 1854, when Rose was elected president of the National Women’s Rights Convention, and people objected because she was an atheist. That same year, Anthony wrote of her,

“Mrs. Rose is not appreciated, nor cannot be by this age. She is too much in advance of the extreme ultraists even, to be understood by them. Almost every reformer feels that the odium of his own ultraisms is as much as he is able to bear and therefore shrinks from being identified with one in whose view their ultraism is sheer conservatism. This fact has been most plainly brought home to me. Every [one] says, ‘I am ultra enough, the mercy knows; I don’t want to seem any more so by identifying myself with one whose every sentiment is so shocking to the public mind.’”

Ernestine Rose continued to campaign for women’s rights and many other things in America, even delivering “A Defence of Atheism” in Boston, in 1861, until she and her husband moved back to England in 1869, her health having taken a turn for the worse. In 1873, however, she felt well enough to begin speaking again and joined the suffrage movement in England, during which campaigning Stanton and Anthony tried to lure her back to America. She died in 1892, in Brighton, England.

Her life and the movements she was involved with, from the various women’s rights and anti-slavery conventions to the first national convention of infidels, serve as an example that progressive movements, while not always getting along perfectly, have historically traveled in packs and attracted the same people. Rose fought against slavery, oppression of women, and anti-Semitism, and argued in favor of equal education for young boys and girls alike, and she met resistance with every step. Her most vicious critics attacked her in a very specific way: “Female skepticism is social poison.” “We know of no object more deserving of contempt, loathing, and abhorrence than a female atheist.” That last one was from a reverend.

Reading about how Rose was attacked reminded me of certain other attacks in the atheist community that I have recently read about. Attacks, both physical and verbal, on women who attend atheist and skeptic conventions. One very detailed example of this I read about on Slate.com was Rebecca Watson’s account of how sexually explicit e-mails she had received and stories of sexism experienced at such conventions by other women translated to a very creepy encounter for her when she, in an attempt to shine light on the issue in hopes of fixing it, discussed the problem at one such convention in 2011. After giving her talk, and staying up until four o’clock in the morning to talk some more with members of her audience, she was approached in an elevator by a man who said he found her very interesting and wanted her to come to his hotel room for coffee. She declined and escaped, and later recounted the experience online.

Her story only resulted in more crude comments, and even mockery from one of the world’s leading atheists, Richard Dawkins, who implied using sarcasm that such problems as being propositioned in an elevator in the early morning at a convention are perfectly harmless compared to what Muslim women go through in the Middle East, as though the level of disrespect Watson experienced should be considered tolerable. More recently, Dawkins has taken a more tolerable position: “Any person who tries to intimidate members of our community with threats or harassment is in no way my ally and is only weakening the atheist movement by silencing its voices and driving away support.”

We don’t drive people away with violent, angry mobs anymore, at least not for the most part, like the one that chased Ernestine Rose from Charleston, West Virginia. We do it through comments on the internet, like those that recently, briefly, chased comedian Leslie Jones away from Twitter. She chose to come back. Ernestine Rose never gave up. But some do, as Watson writes. Some women who are tormented enough decide it is not worth it to be part of a given community if it is going to be so abusive when they bring up issues women face that atheists are well placed to advocate for (like reproductive rights) or against (like female genital mutilation). And the language hasn’t much changed, either, from that Ernestine Rose dealt with to what Rebecca Watson did, and probably still does. The difference is, in the 19th century the attacks were not coming from fellow atheists.

Ernestine Rose is buried in history, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton was for a long time, because no one cares to bring up a feminist atheist in history classes. She did a ton of good, though, even before the movement had started, probably because she was an atheist, and did not care about preserving the old ways just because of tradition and religion. There is a lot of good that atheism can do, but whereas more and more people say they don’t believe there is a God, few of them are willing to call themselves atheists. And if good people don’t want to call themselves atheists because of the loud bad apples who do, the movement cannot spread and do the good it is capable of, because there will be no trust. If we want atheists in congress, the word cannot be associated with sexist threats (which is not to say there is not plenty of sexism already in congress). If we want one in the White House, women, the largest voting block in the country, have to believe atheists are looking out for them, too, as Ernestine Rose was at the beginning of American atheism.

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