Remembering an Early Jewish Feminist and Abolitionist
Before the Civil War, upstate New York was called “the burned over district,” because it was ablaze with religious enthusiasm. School reform, prison reform, various “health reform” crazes, and above all anti-slavery had a home there in the pre-war North.
Yet American Jews, who had played a part in political and social reform during and after the American Revolution, were accused — with some truth — of being bystanders to these later reform crusades.
New York merchant Louis Tappan, a leading abolitionist along with his brother, Arthur, wrote that: “The Jews of the United States have never taken any steps whatever with regard to the slavery question.” He failed to explain, however, that American Jews were a small, dispersed minority, insecure in the South, and lacking a national organization to take a position. It also should be noted that the Tappan brothers were zealous Evangelical Protestants, and were disinclined to work against slavery even with other Christians, much less Jews.
There were rabbis, mostly German-Jewish immigrants, who spoke out against slavery, as well as rabbis who denounced abolitionists.
But the most striking Jew in the abolitionist movement was a Polish immigrant — born Ernestine Louise Potowski and later known by her married name, Ernestine Rose — who became a prominent advocate for abolition, as well as free thought (in her case, atheism) and women’s rights.
She once boasted, “I was a rebel at the age of five.” She sued in civil court to dissolve the marriage arranged for her by her rabbi father, and left home for Germany as a teenager, where the Prussian king granted her residency despite her Jewish origins. She supported herself selling her invention of perfumed paper for use as a room deodorizer.
Traveling to France and England, she survived a shipwreck and became a close friend of the utopian socialist Robert Owen. In 1836, she immigrated to the US where — beautiful and articulate — she emerged as a sensation as a platform orator even before she had fully mastered English. She was elected president of the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1854. She married a free thinking Christian.
Rose spelled Atheism with a capital “A,” but never renounced her connection to fellow Jews, and participated in a well-publicized debate in 1863-1864 with a fellow abolitionist denouncing his antisemitism.
Rose was called by her biographer, Carol Kolmerten, “an ‘other’ in a movements of ‘others.’” She nevertheless shared abolitionist and women’s rights platforms with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth. She became famous for risking violence by giving anti-slavery speeches in both South and North. She successfully lobbied New York’s state legislature for reforms in laws governing the rights of married women.
Yet when the first histories of the great pre-war reform movements were written, she was largely ignored, probably because of her Jewish origins and atheist convictions. Not until the 1990s did biographers begin to take an interest in Rose. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998.
In 1869, she helped form the controversial National Woman Suffrage Association to fight for universal suffrage. She supported voting rights for African-Americans. She passed away in 1892.
Born a century later, she might have won a star in the Jewish firmament alongside Emma Goldman or Betty Friedan.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).