Ernestine L. Rose, Women’s Rights Pioneer, 2nd edition
by Yuri Suhl
New York: Biblio Press, 1990
340pp., $15.95 hardcover,
Ernestine L. Rose seems an unlikely person to find in the company of Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Born in a Polish shtetl in 1810 (and daughter of an Orthodox rabbi), Rose was at the head and heart of U.S. social reform from the moment of her arrival in America. The year was 1836; it was the very beginning of the Woman’s Rights and Free Thought movements.
Rose rejected Orthodoxy at the age of sixteen, while still in Europe. She travelled through Germany and France in the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1830’s, supporting herself with her inventions of chemically treated papers (used to dispel kitchen odors).
Rose moved on to London, where she met her mentor and lifelong friend, Utopian socialist Robert Owen. In these years she found a supportive husband in William Rose, and the couple journeyed to America. Here, as Suhl vividly recounts, Rose plunged into a world of lectures, legislative agitation, and battles lost and won in abolitionist circles, peace societies, and, always, women’s rights conventions.
Suhl documents Rose’s career closely, communicating the elation of the women’s few hard-won successes, and the bitterness of the post-Civil War years when abolitionists and women suffragists, long companions in struggle, became bitterly divided over who should get the right to vote first: Black men or white women. Yet despite his devoted coverage of Rose’s activities, Suhl’s biography of necessity omits much. Rose was an intensely private person, leaving few letters and no diaries. The “Queen of the Platform” never spoke from notes, and few of her speeches have been completely preserved. This absence of Rose’s own words in key scenes of the book is often frustrating.
The late Suhl wrote Rose’s biography in 1959. Since then, his work has been updated and reclaimed by feminist scholars. In a new introduction to the book, Francoise Basch discusses the previously neglected subject of Rose’s ethnicity, and in a new preface, Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall brings to the fore Rose’s socialist feminist politics. The book as a whole attests to the persistence and continual evolution of the women’s movement in this country.
Ruth Knafo Setton teaches English at Lafayette College