Jan 1810 – August 1892
It is difficult to select
here from Annie Gaylor's chapter on Ernestine Rose, because every
paragraph is an illustration of her courage, wisdom and her clear
thinking and expression on a wide range of progressive issues. Her essay
A Defense of Atheism, in
my humble opinion, rivals Bertrand Russell's much later 'Why I Am Not A
Born in the Jewish Ghetto in
Poland, the daughter of an orthodox
rabbi, she took to atheism young.
Having read the Torah in Hebrew she had rejected the bible and Judaism
by the age of 14.When rebuked by her father for combing her hair on the
sabbath, and in the absence of an answer said she would go and ask God
herself. She went outside and after a few minutes came back saying
"I asked him if it was a sin, and he said nothing" Case
closed. She adopted the word atheist
without apology or embarrassment, well before Robert Green Ingersoll
After an eventful journey
thought Europe they settled in America in 1836, where she became America’s
first woman’s rights activist.
Soon after arriving in America she drafted the ‘Married Woman’s
Property Act" that was proposed by freethinker Judge Thomas Hertell.
Canvassing door to door to get support she had to battle not only men,
religionists and clerics, but also women who told her "We don’t
want any more rights – we have rights enough" A year later it
Ernestine was one of several
women freethinkers who went on lecture tours addressing state legislators
and conventions in support of atheism, freethought, women’s rights and
abolition of slavery. Like other
early women activists she was abused and insulted and 'harassed by
ministers and mobs'. On one occasion she
was called "the female
devil, so bold as to contest the right of the South to hold their own
slaves" and the first National Women's Rights Convention in 1850 was
called by the Boston Herald an "Awful Combination of Socialism,
Abolitionism, and Infidelity"
one of her gatherings she told the audience:-
is the opposite of stagnation – the one is life, the other death"
is the evil – knowledge will be the remedy"
At another convention she
opposed attempts to reconcile women's
rights with Christianity saying:- "For my part, I see no need to
appeal to any written authority, particularly when it is so obscure and
indefinite as to admit of different interpretations. When the inhabitants
of Boston converted their harbour into a teapot rather than submit to
unjust taxes, they did not go to the Bible for their authority; for if
they had, they would have been told from the same authority to `give unto
Caesar what belonged to Caesar.' Had the people, when they rose in the
might of their right to throw off the British yoke, appealed to the bible
for authority, it would have answered them, `Submit to the powers that be,
for they are from God.' No! on Human Rights and Freedom, on a subject that
is as self-evident as that two and two make four, there is no need of any
In 1854 The Albany Register
editorialised a convention meeting at which she spoke thus:-
"People are beginning to
inquire how far public sentiment should sanction or tolerate these unsexed
women, who make a scoff of religion, who repudiate the Bible and blaspheme
God; who would step out from the true sphere of the mother, the wife, and
the daughter, and taking upon themselves the duties and the business of
men, stalk into the public gaze, and by engaging in the politics, the
rough controversies. And trafficking of the world, upheave existing
institutions, and overturn all the social relations of life.
It is a melancholy reflection,
that among our American women who have been educated to better things,
there should be found any who are willing to follow the lead of such
foreign propagandists as the ringleted, glove-handed exotic, Ernestine L.
Rose. We can understand how such men as the Rev, Mr May, or the
sleek-headed Dr. Channing may be deluded by her to becoming her disciples………"
She was embroiled in a dispute
over the wording of a Constitutional document when the women activist felt
let down when male abolitionists abandoned the women suffrage plank,
arguing that male Negroes were more entitled to vote than women of all
When her husband died Charles
Bradlaugh delivered the funeral oration, and Moncure Conway spoke. On her
death, Ernestine herself was buried in Highgate Cemetery with her husband
and George Holyoake spoke at her graveside.
How can her contribution to
atheism, feminism and human rights have been forgotten?
This is a shortened version of
Annie Laurie Gaylor's chapter on Ernestine Rose in Women
Without Superstition "No Gods, No Masters" published
by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (www.ffrf.org)
Defence of Atheism, First given as a lecture in Mercantile Hall,
Boston April 1861