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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.