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History is fickle. During the 19th Century, Ernestine Rose was one of the most important and famous international advocates for feminism, free
though and anti-slavery in the United States and Britain. She worked closely with renown figures in this movement such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Despite her contributions to feminism, atheism, and anti-slavery, she has slowly been erased from history.
'''How would you describe yourself as a historian?'''
The sexism I experienced in graduate school led me to join Columbia Women’s Liberation in 1969. After a few years of being in both a consciousness-raising group and the Coordinating Committee on Women in the Historical Profession (CCWHP), I realized that history itself excluded women. In the mid-‘70s I began working in women’s history and the rest of my professional life, both teaching and writing, has been in women’s history. My first book, A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present, done with Judith P. Zinsser, was two volumes long and took ten years to write. (It first came out here in 1988 and then was published in Britain, Germany, Spain, and Italy. We did a revised edition in 2000.) I then moved into transatlantic women’s history. Both Joyous Greetings: The First International Women’s Movement, 1830-1860 (2000) and my current biography of Ernestine Rose, The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer, deal with both the United States and Western Europe.
'''Ernestine Rose was at the heart of the 19th-century American feminist and abolition movement, but I am far less familiar with her than her contemporaries such as Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth. Why isn’t she better known? What has she been written out of history?'''
'''Why did you become interested in writing about Rose? What made her such an intriguing subject?'''
I first encountered her in Miriam Schneir’s wonderful 1972 anthology of feminist writings, but really began researching her life for Joyous Greetings, which examined women’s international connections in the middle of the nineteenth century. Rose was central to this movement and I ended up using her early life to show how these women became feminists. Although she does not have an archive, there are three extensive interviews with her and these provided the details of her career. The only child of a Polish rabbi, she lost her faith as a teenager. Her mother died, leaving her an inheritance, and her father betrothed her to a man she didn’t want to marry. So she traveled by sleigh to a Polish court, pleaded her case and won – at seventeen. This amazing story fascinated me. How had she been able to do that? How had she found the backbone to thrive as the only Jew, atheist and foreigner within the early women’s movement?
The extent of Rose’s atheism and the free thought communities that supported her. I knew about her feminism and her abolitionism, but not much about her free thought. During one of her first public speeches in New York, she was shouted down as an “Infidel,” the derogatory terms for freethinkers then. In 1845, she argued that the freethought society of “Moral Philanthropists” should rename themselves “The Infidel Society,” embracing the term much the way gays and lesbians embraced the label “queer” in the late twentieth century. When she went to England in 1869, she was welcomed by a large freethough community, members of which became her closest friends.
'''What do you want your readers to take away from your book and Rose’s story?'''
'''Who should read your book and how would you recommend using it in the classroom?'''