Crystal Eastman wanted to change the world for women and to change the way women lived in the world. For that, she was called “the most dangerous woman in America.” That has changed to “the most neglected political leader in America” because of her pioneering legislation and the permanent political organization she formed.
A suffragette, magazine editor and lawyer, she inspired her fans and vexed 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.”
The story aimed to shock. But she went one better in 1923, when she published a confessional article in a magazine: Marriage Under Two Roofs. It described how she and her husband decided to live in separate residences. “…it has given us the one serene and happy period of all our married life,” she wrote.
She was born in Marlborough, Mass., on June 25, 1881, to two Congregationalist ministers, Samuel and Annis Eastman. Her mother was one of the first women ordained in the United States. Crystal had a younger brother, Max Eastman, who would work with her on radical causes. The family soon relocated to Canandaigua, N.Y., in the Burned-Over District, a hotbed of reform and religious fervor.
By 1916, Crystal Eastman had earned a law degree from New York University, a master’s in sociology from Columbia and a B.A. from Vassar. Shortly after school, she worked on an investigation of labor conditions in Pittsburgh. From there she went on to agitate for safe workplaces and medical care for workers injured on the job.
She helped write New York state’s workers compensation laws, the first in the nation. Then she went to work in President Wilson’s administration investigating workplace safety.
She abhorred the general condition of women in the country, both in the workplace and in the home. But her feminism had a very practical strain, and she saw the suffrage movement as just the start of progress for women.
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 and worker exploitation, 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.
Virtually no account of Eastman’s activities fails to mention her beauty and vitality. At nearly six feet tall, she stood out in any gathering. Though consumed by serious issues, she also enjoyed the arts, music and theater. And she loved to laugh.
At the same time, Eastman had no interest 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 woman won the right to vote in 1920, the divisions within the women’s movement grew more pronounced. Eastman, who had co-founded the precursor to the ACLU, wanted the National Women’s Party to embrace a wide range of issues. Those included equal pay, equal treatment under the law and reproductive rights.
Other elements of the movement, however, had not signed on for change so radical. They wanted the vote, and they got it with the 19th Amendment. Eastman viewed universal suffrage as a starting point. She made that point in a speech, “Now We Can Begin.” In it, she argued for women’s economic independence — and for men to share in the housework.
“No woman who allows husband and children to absorb her whole time and interest is safe from disaster,” she said.
Eastman’s outspoken socialism caused a problem for some leaders in the post-suffrage women’s movement. Others found her unconventional views on sexual liberation for women to be off-putting. They wanted a lower profile for her.
Eastman then 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, Eastman’s life took a difficult turn. From 1918 to 1921, she and her now more-famous brother Max published the Liberator, a progressive magazine. She served as its managing editor until the two sold it. After that, she found it harder to get work because of her support for communism.
Her first, brief marriage ended in divorce.
Her second husband, pacifist Walter Fuller, had come to America to avoid World War I. He moved to England to work as an editor, and Eastman shuttled between the U.S. and the UK. Her heart belonged to America, but her family’s best hopes for financial support lay in Britain.
The year 1927 found Eastman and her husband contemplating a return to the United States. She traveled first, and word soon followed that Walter had died – victim of a stroke. Eastman, who had suffered from shaky health for years, then died on July 8, 1928 of nephritis. Friends rallied to raise her two children, Jeffrey and Annis.
Her obituary from the Nation magazine reminded people of her impact. “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 2022.