Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

ERNESTINE POTOWSKI ROSE

(1810-1892), unfolding the rhetoric of identity

CHARLES CONDRAD

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Ernestine Potowski Rose was known to thousands of Americans. In an era of social and cultural ferment, when movements for intellectual freedom and political emancipation dominated the cultural milieu of the United States and Europe, virtually every cultural assumption was being challenged, even prevailing conceptions of God. In the United States, she was linked with many of these movements--woman's rights, abolitionism, socialism, free public education, elimination of child labor, and alternative religious beliefs. Potowski Rose was only the second foreign woman to lecture publicly in the United States (her friend Frances Wright had been the first). Her exceptional oratorical skills gained her the title "Queen of the Platform" and led woman's rights activists to view her as the most effective speaker of the movement's early years:

Those who sat with her on the platform in bygone days, well remember her matchless powers as a speaker; and how safe we all felt while she had the floor, that neither in manner, sentiment, argument, nor repartee, would she in any way compromise the dignity of the occasion. . . . She had a rich musical voice, with just enough of a foreign accent and idiom to add to the charm of her oratory. As a speaker she was pointed, logical, and impassioned. She not only dealt in abstract principles clearly, but in their application touched the deepest emotions of the human soul. ( HWS 1:100)

Although the editors of the first volume of History of Woman Suffrage list the rhetoric of Ernestine Rose and Frances Wright as one of the three factors most responsible for the early movement, her name is not among the nineteen pioneers to whom the work is dedicated. Although her work on behalf of woman's rights ranged from going door-to-door through New York with a petition for women's property rights to election as president of the National Woman's Rights Association, some movement histories do not mention her, and few provide a systematic commentary on her rhetoric or her role in the movement. And although her humanistic views served as the cornerstone of woman's rights ideology and influenced the ideas of such future leaders as ELIZABETH CADY STANTON and SUSAN B. ANTHONY, it is her successors who usually are credited as the key movement philosophers and rhetors.

When her name is mentioned, she typically is treated as an enigma, both by modern-day scholars and by the women who knew her best. Anthony's diary records a conversation during an 1854 speaking trip to Washington, D.C., that reveals both her frustrations with this enigmatic figure and Potowski Rose's feelings about her place in the movement:

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