Crystal Eastman wanted to change the world for women and change the way women lived in the world.
A suffragette, magazine editor and lawyer, she was accustomed to inspiring her fans and vexing her critics. In November of 1916, she managed it once again, this time when the papers reported on her second marriage: “Miss Crystal Eastman, radical feminist, suffrage leader and birth control advocate, wants to be known by her maiden name.”
Eastman was a forceful personality, and her brand of feminism was well ahead of its time. New England only has a minor claim to her. She was born in Marlborough, Mass. on June 25, 1881, but her parents, both Congregational ministers, soon relocated to New York.
By 1916, she was already a lawyer with a strong resume. Shortly after school, she worked on an investigation of labor conditions in Pittsburgh, and from there went on to agitate for companies to provide a safe workplace and medical care for workers injured on the job.
She helped write New York state’s workers compensation laws, and went to work in President Wilson’s administration investigating workplace safety. There was always a very practical strain to Eastman’s feminism, and she saw the suffrage movement as just the start of progress for women.
She abhorred the general condition of women in the country, both in the workplace and in the home.
Perhaps most controversially, she saw a woman’s need to control whether and how many children she had as critical to gaining equality.
Crystal Eastman, Socialist
In the age of industrialization, where workers were very poorly treated, Eastman saw socialism as the solution. As a rabble-rousing speaker addressing both socialist and feminist themes, as well as her staunch opposition to World War I, she was well-received at gatherings of activists and by the general public.
No doubt part of her appeal was her beauty and vitality. Virtually no account of Eastman’s activities fails to mention that she was a beautiful woman. At nearly 6-feet tall, she stood out in any gathering. And she had an outstanding mind. Though she was consumed by serious issues, she also enjoyed the arts, music and theater. And she loved to laugh.
At the same time, Eastman was uninterested in managing a home, and had little use for housekeeping skills. She despised the idea that women should rely on men. And she believed – probably an idea inherited from her mother – that women should compete directly with men in the workplace. The idea of male superiority, she argued, was a myth. If allowed to compete, she believed, women would do just fine.
Her ideas delighted audiences. But once the goal of universal suffrage had been achieved, the divisions within the women’s movement began to grow more pronounced. Eastman, who had been one of the founders of the precursor to the ACLU, wanted the National Women’s Party to embrace a wide range of issues: equal pay, equal treatment under the law and reproductive rights.
Other elements of the movement, however, had not signed on for change so radical. The vote was the goal, and the vote had been achieved. Eastman’s outspoken socialism was a problem for some leaders in the post-suffrage women’s movement. Others found her unconventional views about how women should be sexually liberated to be offputting, and they wanted a lower profile for her.
Eastman joined up with the group that authored the first Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in 1923 – the same one resurrected and defeated in the 1970s.
Professionally, however, Eastman’s life took a difficult turn. From 1918 to 1921, she and her more famous brother Max published the Liberator, a progressive magazine. She was its managing editor until the two sold it. After that, she found work more difficult to get. She was largely blacklisted because of her support for communism. Her second husband, who had come to America to avoid World War I, moved to England to work as an editor, and Eastman shuttled back and forth. Her heart was in America, but her family’s best hopes for financial support was in Britain.
The year 1927 found Eastman and her husband, Walter Fuller, contemplating a return to the United States. She traveled first, and word soon followed that Walter had died – victim of a stroke. Eastman, whose own health had been shaky for years, died in July of 1928 of nephritis. Friends rallied to raise her two children, but her role in the women’s movement was truncated by her early death at just 47.
Her obituary from the Nation magazine reminded people just what a force she had been: “When she spoke to people—whether it was to a small committee or a swarming crowd—hearts beat faster. She was for thousands a symbol of what the free woman might be.”
This story was updated in 2017.