Crystal Eastman was a leading American writer, labor lawyer, and activist for women's rights and for civil liberties. During her life she worked to improve working conditions for U.S. laborers, helped establish the american civil liberties union (ACLU), and lobbied for the enactment of the equal rights amendment. In many of her exploits she partnered with her younger brother Max. Max Eastman gained fame as a Marxist writer and journalist who later rejected socialism and became a supporter of the virulently anti-communist senator, joseph mccarthy. In contrast, Crystal Eastman was a consistent supporter of socialist politics, the suffragist movement, and feminism throughout her life.
Eastman was born on June 25, 1881, in Glenora, New York, to Samuel Eastman and Annis Ford Eastman. Both her parents were ordained church ministers and ardent believers in women's rights, beliefs that Eastman absorbed. In a 1927 autobiographical essay written for Nation magazine, Eastman talked about her father's support of her mother's goal of becoming a minister and his support of Crystal when she decided to study law. He even supported the rebellious Crystal when she led her teenage friends in revolt against the wearing of skirts and stockings as part of the swimming attire of proper young ladies. Her father knew that he would not want to wear a skirt and stockings when he went swimming, she wrote, so he could see why his daughter would not want to either. Eastman also credited her mother with encouraging Crystal and her two brothers to be independent thinkers and to advocate for the causes that were most important to them.
Eastman graduated from Vassar College in 1903 and earned a master's degree in sociology from Columbia University in 1904. She attended New York City School of Law where she graduated second in her class in 1907. Until 1911, Eastman lived in a Greenwich Village commune that included her brother Max.
Paul Kellogg, social work advocate and editor of a publication called Charities and the Commons, hired the young attorney as part of a team charged with investigating conditions among steel workers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The resulting survey, published between 1909 and 1914, was a groundbreaking six-volume study that was the first to combine the collection of scientific data with management techniques. Eastman's portion of the survey, a report titled Work Accidents and the Law, was published in 1910. The report, which focused on unsafe working environments and the corruption of officials and others, was a startling revelation to many politicians and citizens. In 1909, Eastman became the first woman appointed to the Employer's Liability Commission. In that role she drafted the first workers' compensation law for the state of New York.
"I am not interested in women just because they're women. I am interested, however, in seeing that they are no longer classed with children and minors."
Eastman married Walter Benedict and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she continued be involved in women's suffrage issues. Eastman eventually separated from her husband and moved back to New York where she became an investigating attorney for the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations in 1913. That same year, Eastman, along with suffragist alice paul and several others, helped to found the militant Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage that was a forerunner of the National Woman's Party. In 1915, Eastman joined over three thousand women for a meeting in Washington, D.C., where they founded the Woman's Peace Party with famed social worker jane addams as chair. Eastman became president of the New York branch of the party which, in 1921, was renamed the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. That organization, which exists to this day, supports disarmament, women's rights, civil liberties, and abolition of capital punishment.
Eastman also served as executive director of the American Union against Militarism (AUAM), an organization that lobbied to keep the United States from entering into war against Mexico in 1916 and to support American neutrality during world war i. Within the AUAM, Eastman along with social reformers roger baldwin and Norman Thomas established a subsection called the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB) whose primary purpose was to advocate for and protect the bill of rights.
Eastman worked on the left-wing political journal The Masses with her brother Max who was editor. When that periodical was closed down due to lawsuits, Eastman and her brother joined with several others to found a similar journal, The Liberator. Eastman was editor of the magazine from 1917 to 1921. In 1922, The Liberator was taken over by the Communist Party, which later renamed it The Workers' Monthly.
Eastman had always been a passionate defender of free speech, but her support for the concept strengthened in the face of the suppression of antiwar activists during and after World War I. President Woodrow Wilson's attorney general a. mitchell palmer and Palmer's special assistant j. edgar hoover used the espionage act of 1917 and the 1918 sedition Act to commence a campaign against those perceived to be radicals or members of left-wing organizations. Palmer and Hoover conducted Palmer Raids, casting a large net that involved the arrest, in over 30 cities around the country, of thousands of suspected anarchists and supporters of socialism and communism. Arrests were often made without warrants and several hundred, including noted feminist and radical emma goldman, were deported.
In 1920, the NCLB, which had been established with the aim of protecting the Bill of Rights against encroachments such as those encompassed by the Palmer Raids, became the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The purpose of the organization was to advocate for first amendment rights including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press, as well as equal protection and due process rights, and the right to privacy. In 2003, the ACLU, which remains headquartered in New York City, had grown from a roomful of activists to an organization with over 300,000 members, and supporters and offices all over the country.
In the 1920s, Eastman traveled between New York and London where her second husband, British poet and peace activist Walter Fuller, had gone to look for work. During this period she worked as a journalist, writing columns for several U.S. periodicals including the Nation and Alice Paul's Equal Rights, and British publications such as the Daily Herald and a British feminist weekly called Time and Tide.
Shortly after women gained the right to vote, Eastman, along with Alice Paul, became one of the authors of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which proposed amending the U.S. Constitution to invalidate numerous state and federal laws that discriminated against women while purporting to "protect" them. No action was taken on the ERA when it was introduced in Congress in 1923, and it languished until 1966 when the national organization for women (NOW) revived interest in it. The amendment was approved by Congress in 1972 and given a seven-year deadline for ratification by 38 states. The amendment was ratified by 30 states within one year of Senate approval. But opposition from conservative political and religious groups halted the momentum. Despite an extension of the deadline to 1982 and ratification by five more states, the amendment failed to be ratified by the required three-fourths and did not become law.
After her husband's death in 1927, Eastman returned to live permanently in the United States. She died just one year later, in July 1928, at her brother's home in Erie, Pennsylvania. She was 48 years old. In 2000, Eastman, along with 19 other distinguished American women, was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fall in Seneca Falls, New York, the birthplace of the women's rights movement.
Cook, Blanche Wiesen. 1993. "Radical Women of Greenwich Village." In Greenwich Village: Culture and Counterculture, edited by Rick Beard and Leslie Berlowitz Cohen. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press.
Cook, Blanche Wiesen, ed. 1976. Toward the Great Change: Max and Crystal Eastman on Feminism, Antimilitarism, and Revolution. New York: Garland.
Kerber, Linda K., and Jane Sherron DeHart, eds. 2003. Women's America: Refocusing the Past. 6th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Born 25 June 1881, Marlboro, Massachusetts; died 28 July 1928, Erie, Pennsylvania
Daughter of Samuel and Annis Ford Eastman; married Wallace Benedict, 1911; Walter Fuller, 1916
Crystal Eastman was the daughter of feminist parents. Her mother was a Congregationalist minister and a prominent suffragist. After graduation from Vassar College in 1903, Eastman received a master's degree in sociology from Columbia University and a law degree from New York University. In 1907 she was hired by the Russell Sage Foundation to investigate work accidents in Pittsburgh. This study, the first systematic analysis of industrial accidents, established her reputation as a social investigator. In 1909 she was appointed to be the sole woman member of the New York State Employers Liability Commission, which, between 1909 and 1911, wrote the New York Workman's Compensation Law.
In 1912 Eastman joined the Congressional Union (later the Women's Party) in advocating a federal suffrage amendment. When World War I began in 1914, she helped found the New York Women's Peace Party, becoming its president in 1915. She also became the executive secretary of the American Union against Militarism.
In 1917 Eastman's socialism and support of conscientious objectors caused a split in the AUAM. Eastman, with Roger Baldwin and Norman Thomas, organized the Civil Liberties Bureau, which later became the American Civil Liberties Union. She also became coeditor, with her brother Max, of the Liberator, a literary magazine dedicated to revolutionary ideas.
In 1922 Eastman moved to London and devoted the next five years to writing about the feminist movement. Dissatisfied with the course of her writing career there, she returned to New York in 1927. After helping to organize the 10th anniversary celebration of the Nation, her health failed and she died at the age of forty-seven.
Eastman's first published works were reports of her investigations into work accidents in Pennsylvania. She demonstrated the frequency of industrial accidents and the insufficient compensation received by workers. Eastman proposed that workers be compensated for accidents according to a fixed rate regardless of responsibility. In these articles, she showed a familiarity with and respect for workers that reinforced her growing revolutionary consciousness.
The subject of most of Eastman's writing was feminism. She felt that the vote was only the first step toward women's liberation. True liberation also depended on birth control, nonsexist education for children, state support of mothers, and an Equal Rights Amendment. To Eastman, domestic labor was oppressive because the home was a symbol of resignation to male will. She advocated independence within marriage, urging wives to retain their own names and pointing out the advantages of separate residences. Eastman also opposed special industrial protection for women. In articles written between 1922 and 1927, she charted the increasing tension between equal rights advocates and protectionists, which eventually split the feminist movement.
Another major concern of Eastman's was the spread of militarism, which she felt was inimical to democracy. In her view, women could contribute much toward the abolition of war because of their greater respect for human life. This respect stemmed from the experience of childbirth and childrearing, which were the largest roles of a woman's life. Eastman's pacifism was an integral part of her feminism.
As a Marxist and a critic of the dilatory reformism of the American socialist movement, Eastman's report on communist Hungary showed, however, that she had few illusions about revolutionary governments. She described the bleakness and repression of Hungary in 1919, but was heartened by the abolition of class structure and private property and by the lack of crude nationalism in appeals for army recruits. At the same time, she noted sadly that war and starvation gave birth to revolution and revolutionary governments were conditioned by these factors as well as by idealism. Eastman also recognized that communist movements and states were not automatically feminist. Feminism, though not hostile to the workers' struggle, was different in its objects and methods. Eastman justified both feminist reforms and separate women's organizations on these grounds. She wanted the social revolution to be a woman's as well as a worker's victory.
Eastman's feminism conditioned both her Marxism and her pacifism. In her recognition of the inherent oppressiveness of home labor and the ideological causes of woman's position, and in her effort to raise the feminist consciousness of the socialist movement, Eastman foreshadowed the concerns of modern feminists. She found the weakness in both Marxist theory and in socialist politics when she pointed out the inadequacies of the purely materialist analysis of woman's oppression. Eastman intended to write a theoretical work on women but died before she could begin. This work could have been a significant contribution to the ongoing attempts to synthesize feminist and socialist theory.
Work Accidents and the Law (1911).
Cook, B. W., Toward the Great Change (1976). Cook, B. W., ed., Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution (1978). Cott, N., The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987). Eastman, M., Enjoyment of Living (1948). Eastman, M., Love and Revolution (1964). Showalter, E., ed., These Modern Women: Autobiographical Essays from the Twenties (1978). Sochen, J., The New Woman: Feminism in Greenwich Village, 1910-20 (1972). Sochen, J., Movers and Shakers (1973).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Nation (8 Aug. 1928). NYT (29 July 1928). Survey (15 Aug. 1928).
—JUDITH S. LOHMAN
[See also Peace and Antiwar Movements.]
Blanche Wiesen Cook