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How Crystal Eastman Fought for Equality

Eastman was a women’s suffragist, labor reformer, and founder of the ACLU, but her work never quite took center stage.

Crystal Eastman (rear center) with activists at the National Woman’s Party headquarters (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Who gets remembered, who gets lionized, in the history of leftist politics? Amy Aronson’s new biography of the feminist socialist reformer Crystal Eastman—the first full-length treatment of her life—grapples with this question up front. During the 1910s, Eastman was internationally famous, a firebrand speaker and leader in the fights for women’s suffrage, labor reform, international peace, and the preservation of civil liberties. She helped found the National Woman’s Party, the Woman’s Peace Party, the American Union Against Militarism, and the American Civil Liberties Union. She ran the important left-wing magazine The Liberator, was published in most of the prominent progressive journals of the era, and helped draft the Equal Rights Amendment. The Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, whom she discovered and published in The Liberator, wrote that she embodied “all that was fundamentally fine, noble and genuine in American democracy.” Yet today, if she’s to be glimpsed anywhere, it’s in the shadows of the more famous leaders, writers, and public figures with whom she worked: everyone from Jane Addams to Woodrow Wilson, Alice Paul, John Reed, Roger Baldwin, Helen Keller, Ida B. Wells, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

Oxford University Press, 376 pp., $34.95

Aronson argues that it is this fleeting visibility—a cameo in every famous leftist life of the early twentieth century—that means Eastman plays a “walk-on” role where she should be a star. There are practical reasons for this sidelining: a patchy archive, a fading from public view in the 1920s, and a life cut short at the age of 48 by kidney damage from a childhood illness. But the wide range of her political commitments counted against her, as well, along with her insistence on seeing connections between issues that others wanted to keep separate. Aronson suggests that it was her “kaleidoscopic vision”—what we might now call an intersectional outlook—that meant no movement fully claimed her as its own.

And then, of course, there’s Max. Eastman’s younger brother outlived her by more than 40 years, giving him ample time to write his own story and shape both their legacies. The siblings were exceptionally close, and Max’s comment about the truth of Freud’s “incest barrier” taboo has only fueled biographers’ speculation about whether they breached it. Aronson, however, is more interested in outlining their professional intertwining, detailing Crystal’s central role in turning Max into one of the most visible journalists, editors, and public intellectuals of the twentieth century. She pushed him to launch the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage in 1909 and made the connections that vaulted him into his role as editor of the quintessential Greenwich Village socialist magazine The Masses. For most of the 1910s, they worked and often lived together and were known simply as “the Eastmans.”

Yet disentangling Crystal’s story from Max’s and centering her in a full biography does more than simply amplify a drowned-out voice. It forces us to confront how we understand leadership and legacy in progressive movements. Decades before “the personal is political” became a feminist rallying cry, Crystal recognized that the imbalance of labor and power in the home reflected larger inequalities in the workplace and the wider world, and attempted to forge an identity that connected her public and private lives, in a struggle whose failures and false starts are as revealing as its moments of triumph.

The quasi-romantic intensity of Crystal’s relationship with Max was matched by her relationship with her remarkable, emotionally volatile mother, Annis Ford Eastman, a Congregational minister who was the first woman ordained in New York state. Their correspondence is full of florid, performative declarations of devotion, and Crystal clearly took many of her mother’s teachings to heart, particularly on the importance of maintaining one’s individual vision and the need for women to have “impersonal” interests outside the family. Yet when she entered Vassar in 1899, it was in defiance of her mother, who wanted her to go to the female-led Bryn Mawr. Her love clearly allowed, perhaps needed, a little space for rebellion.

At Vassar she met the future suffragist Lucy Burns, and poured out to her mother and Max her intense feelings of romantic devotion. Such passions were part of the culture of college at the time, but Crystal would always voice this need for powerful interpersonal bonds—although usually with men. Tall and striking and athletic, she had no shortage of dates, although she struggled to reconcile her desire for men and marriage, and ultimately children, with her career ambitions. It was hard to find role models for a successful balance. Many of the older women prominent in social reform in the era remained single, often in discreet same-sex relationships, but Eastman yearned for something different—an equal professional and romantic partnership with a man exactly like her brother. It was an ideal ironically known at the time as “sibling marriage.” She would eventually be married twice: first in 1911, while still reeling from the grief of her mother’s recent death, to a Milwaukee insurance agent named Wallace Benedict and, after his infidelity and their divorce, to Walter Fuller, a publicist and pacifist, and the father of her two children. In neither case was she able to create the equal partnership she wanted—not least because marriage was not meant to work like that. Marrying the British Fuller cost Eastman her U.S. citizenship under the 1907 Expatriation Act, which dictated that American women who married foreign men had to take on their husband’s nationality instead (but not the other way around).

Eastman backstage at a conference on industrial accidents and workers’ compensation in June 1910
(Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum)

Eastman got a graduate degree in sociology at Columbia and then went to law school at NYU, both places where the raw numbers of women studying were tiny. Even at NYU, a leading educator of women, she was one of only 16 in a class of over 150 students. Aronson notes that this made her both hypervisible but also marginalized, lacking the basic male privilege, “the assumption of oneself as the standard person.” To support herself in law school, she took a job at the nearby Greenwich House settlement and fell in love with the vibrant radical culture of Greenwich Village in the 1910s and the neighborly ideals of the growing settlement-house movement. These residential homes placed young, middle-class, often female reformers among poor immigrant communities, providing classes and services and trying (with uneven results) to reach across differences of class, language, and ethnicity. Wherever her work took her afterward, Eastman would always come back to the Village, and its idealism shaped her politics for the rest of her life.

Even after she passed the Bar, Eastman would never find a firm willing to employ her as an attorney. Instead she joined an industrial survey in Pittsburgh, analyzing the toll of workplace accidents, which resulted in her only published book, a 1910 report on Work Accidents and the Law. Back in New York, she joined a statewide commission on employer liability and helped craft the country’s first mandatory workers’ compensation program. It was immediately challenged in court and ruled unconstitutional in March 1911, on the day before the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire killed nearly 150 people, mostly young immigrant women. Eastman’s reaction was furious and devastated: “What we want is to start a revolution.”

But how, and where? In 1911 she moved to Milwaukee to spearhead the statewide suffrage campaign. The local organizers found Eastman’s brash style off-putting, and she was impatient with the slow pace of the state-by-state strategy, which in Wisconsin failed in the face of fierce brewery-industry opposition. Shortly afterward, she joined her Vassar friend Lucy Burns and the radical suffrage leader Alice Paul to push instead for women’s right to vote at the federal level, as a constitutional amendment. Their committee evolved into the National Woman’s Party, which gave Eastman a platform for her wide-ranging feminist vision, which encompassed economic and domestic issues along with political rights. But Paul was, in Eastman’s words, “a leader of action, not of thought,” and after the suffrage victory, she focused the NWP’s fight on passing a constitutional Equal Rights Amendment. Eastman supported the ERA, but her experience in movements outside suffrage convinced her that the cause of women’s equality was too large and complex to be limited to a single battle.

With the outbreak of World War I, Eastman’s feminist vision widened. Along with several other prominent feminists, Eastman leaned into the idea that war was a masculine atrocity and that women, as life-givers, had a particular duty to counteract its violence and stand up for peace. In late 1914, she formed the Woman’s Peace Party of New York, America’s first feminist peace organization, and pushed to expand it nationwide. After the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, which made the pacifist cause more urgent and more dangerous, Eastman joined the group that would become the American Union Against Militarism. She continued to believe that the fights for peace and for women’s rights were not just compatible but deeply connected.

When the United States finally entered the war, in the spring of 1917, it ushered in a “climate of compulsory patriotism” backed by a series of fierce crackdowns on free speech and assembly. The new Espionage and Sedition Acts brought thousands of people under arrest and surveillance by the nascent FBI, including the Eastman siblings, and forced the closure of The Masses, the magazine that Max had edited since 1912. Eastman believed that the AUAM’s role in wartime was to fight these infringements on democratic rights, not simply to look ahead to shaping postwar policy. She pushed the leadership to create a separate Civil Liberties Bureau, which would challenge the new laws in order to test their boundaries. Yet Eastman is rarely credited with a founding role in what became the ACLU, for reasons that were bluntly gendered: In the crucial early months of the war, while the organization took shape, she was recovering from a difficult pregnancy and the birth of her son, and was physically unable to participate. Roger Baldwin, appointed to lead the bureau, had free rein to shape it according to his particular approach, which differed markedly from Eastman’s internationalism. He made it a distinctly American project, rooted in the Constitution and capitalizing on wartime patriotism rather than fighting it. As such, it was a resounding success, but it was not Eastman’s vision, and it was a sign that her efforts to connect social issues across ideological and national borders was increasingly out of step with the times.

Just after women won the vote, in September 1920, Eastman joined a meeting of the NWP leadership to discuss what was next. Had they finished their work, or had it just begun? Eastman continued to push for a wide-ranging social justice agenda for the party, which would combine political goals (including a “protest against the disenfranchisement of Negro women”) with economic ones. Yet she was also increasingly concerned with reforming the domestic sphere. Unlike many of her peers, who saw access to professional careers as the best route to emancipation, Eastman did not believe capitalism could solve the deeper problems in the home. She saw the domestic sphere as the place where gender inequality began, and voiced the need to raise feminist sons and for fathers to share responsibility for childcare and domestic labor—as well as for the state to provide some form of paid maternity leave.

Her own experience sharpened her views. Her daughter, Annis, was born prematurely in December 1921, and Eastman spent most of 1922 looking for a job in New York, but by the end of the year, she had bowed to Walter’s desire to live in England, where she had little choice but to support herself as a freelance journalist. In London, she lived with the children while he boarded with friends nearby—an arrangement she celebrated as modern and romantic in a personal essay, “Marriage Under Two Roofs,” but which effectively left her a single mother. By 1927, she had had enough and sailed with the children for New York, still hoping to find some political work to sink her teeth into. Less than a month after her arrival, she learned that Walter had died of a brain hemorrhage. Mortally sick herself, she would outlive him by less than a year and died in July 1928, at her elder brother Anstice’s house, with Max at her bedside.

Her friend Freda Kirchwey, future editor of The Nation, wrote in her obituary that Crystal Eastman was “to thousands of young women and young men a symbol of what the free woman might be.” But she was also a symbol of what that freedom might cost. Her struggle was not so much to have it all as to prove that “it all” was connected, that it made no sense to fight in isolation when the emancipation of the world was at stake. Such a broad outlook threatens to dissolve into a haze, but Aronson makes a strong case for stepping back and seeing it clearly, and for seeing Eastman herself as a pivotal rather than a peripheral figure in the history of the American left.