Ernestine L.Rose

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 Christian.

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 discovered freethought. 

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 became law.

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"

At one of her gatherings she told the audience:-

"Agitation is the opposite of stagnation – the one is life, the other death" and

"Ignorance 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 written authority."

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 races.

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 (

A Defence of Atheism, First given as a lecture in Mercantile Hall, Boston April 1861