Biography of Crystal Eastman: Feminist, Civil Libertarian, Pacifist

Co-Founder of the American Civil Liberties Union

Crystal Eastman

Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain 

Crystal Eastman (June 25, 1881–July 8, 1928) was a lawyer and writer, was involved in socialism, the peace movement, women’s issues, and civil liberties. Her popular essay, " 'Now We Can Begin': What’s Next?: Beyond Woman Suffrage" addressed what women needed to do after winning suffrage, to take advantage of the vote. She was also a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Fast Facts: Crystal Eastman

  • Known For: Lawyer, writer, and organizer who was involved in socialism, the peace movement, women’s issues, civil liberties. Co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.
  • Also Known As: Crystal Catherine Eastman
  • Born: June 25, 1881, in Marlborough, Mass.
  • Parents: Samuel Elijah Eastman, Annis Bertha Ford
  • Died: July 8, 1928 
  • Education: Vassar College (Master of Arts in sociology, 1903), Columbia University (1904), New York University Law School (J.D., 1907)
  • Published Works: The Liberator (socialist newspaper established by Eastman and her brother Max), " 'Now We Can Begin': What’s Next?: Beyond Woman Suffrage" (influential feminist essay)
  • Awards and Honors: National Women's Hall of Fame (2000)
  • Spouses: Wallace Benedict (m. 1911–1916), Walter Fuller (m. 1916–1927)
  • Children: Jeffrey Fuller, Annis Fuller
  • Notable Quote: "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."

Early Life and Education

Crystal Eastman was born in 1881 in Marlboro, Mass., the daughter of two progressive parents. Her mother, as an ordained minister, had fought against restrictions on women’s roles. Eastman attended Vassar College, then Columbia University and finally law school at New York University. She graduated second in her law school class.

Workers’ Compensation

During her last year of education, she became involved in the circle of social reformers in Greenwich Village. She lived with her brother, Max Eastman, and other radicals. She was a part of the Heterodoxy Club.

Just out of college, she investigated workplace accidents, funded by the Russel Sage Foundation, and published her findings in 1910. Her work led her to an appointment by the New York governor to the Employers’ Liability Commission, where she was the only woman commissioner. She helped shape recommendations based on her workplace investigations, and in 1910, the legislature in New York adopted the first workers’ compensation program in America.

Suffrage

Eastman married Wallace Benedict in 1911. Her husband was an insurance agent in Milwaukee, and they moved to Wisconsin after getting married. There, she became involved in the campaign of 1911 to win a state woman’s suffrage amendment, which failed. 

By 1913, she and her husband were separated. From 1913 to 1914, Eastman served as an attorney, working for the federal Commission on Industrial Relations.

The failure of the Wisconsin campaign led Eastman to the conclusion that work would be better focused on a national suffrage amendment. She joined Alice Paul and Lucy Burns in urging the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to change tactics and focus, helping to begin the Congressional Committee within the NAWSA in 1913. Finding the NAWSA would not change, later that year the organization separated from its parent and became the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, evolving into the National Woman’s Party in 1916. She lectured and traveled to promote women’s suffrage.

In 1920, when the suffrage movement won the vote, she published her essay, “Now We Can Begin.” The premise of the essay was that the vote was not the end of a struggle, but the beginning—a tool for women to become involved in political decision-making and address the many remaining feminist issues to promote women’s freedom.

Eastman, Alice Paul, and several others wrote a proposed federal Equal Rights Amendment to work for further equality for women beyond the vote. The ERA did not pass Congress until 1972, and not enough states ratified it by the deadline established by Congress.

Peace Movement

In 1914, Eastman also became involved in working for peace. She was among the founders of the Woman’s Peace Party, with Carrie Chapman Catt, and helped recruit Jane Addams to become involved. She and Jane Addams differed on many topics; Addams denounced the “casual sex” common in the younger Eastman’s circle.

In 1914, Eastman became the executive secretary of the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), whose members came to include even Woodrow Wilson. Eastman and brother, Max, published The Masses, a socialist journal that was explicitly anti-militarist.

By 1916, Eastman’s marriage ended formally with a divorce. She refused any alimony, on feminist grounds. She remarried the same year, this time to a British antimilitarism activist and journalist, Walter Fuller. They had two children and often worked together in their activism.

When the United States entered the First World War, Eastman responded to the institution of the draft and of laws prohibiting criticism of the war, by joining with Roger Baldwin and Norman Thomas to found a group within AUAM. The Civil Liberties Bureau that they initiated defended the right to be conscientious objectors to serving in the military, and also defended civil liberties including free speech. The Bureau evolved into the American Civil Liberties Union.

The end of the war also marked the beginning of ​a separation from Eastman’s husband, who left to go back to London to find work. She occasionally traveled to London to visit him, and eventually established a home there for herself and her children, maintaining that “marriage under two roofs makes room for moods.”

Death and Legacy

Walter Fuller died after a stroke in 1927, and Eastman returned to New York with her children. She died the next year of nephritis. Friends took over the raising of her two children.

Eastman and her brother, Max, published a socialist journal from 1917 to 1922 called the Liberator, which had a circulation of 60,000 at its peak. Her reform work, including her involvement with socialism, led to her blacklisting during the 1919–1920 Red Scare. 

During her career, she published many articles on the topics of interest to her, especially on social reform, women’s issues, and peace. After she was blacklisted, she found paying work primarily around feminist issues. In 2000, Eastman was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame for co-founding the ACLU as well as work on social issues, civil liberties, and woman's suffrage.

Sources

  • Cott, Nancy F., and Elizabeth H. Pleck. A Heritage of Her Own. Simon and Schuster, 1979.toward a New Social History of American Women:
  • Crystal Eastman.” American Civil Liberties Union.
  • Eastman, Crystal.” National Women's Hall of Fame.