The socialist feminist Crystal Catherine Eastman, once well-known, has been largely forgotten in today’s America – undeservedly so. I have written this article in 2018 on the 90th-year anniversary of her death to bring her life and legacy once again to the public eye.
Born in 1881 in Marlborough, Massachusetts, Crystal Eastman was far ahead of her time: many of her views are well ahead of mainstream American society today. She supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which still has not been ratified as part of the U.S. Constitution, though it simply states, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” She also kept her last name upon marriage, which is still fairly rare in recent times, with only approximately 20 percent of women keeping theirs post-marriage in the mid-2010s.1 Eastman was also a pacifist who strongly opposed World War I (co-founding the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the American Union Against Militarism) and would have likely have been devastated by the constant wars fought by America today. As a socialist, she was often persecuted for her outspoken political stance.
Yet much of what she supported did come to fruition in American society, though not all of it within her short lifetime. Eastman supported birth control at a time when it was largely illegal, and was a suffragist, co-founding the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. She drafted the legislation that became America’s first workers’ compensation law and co-founded the National Civil Liberties Bureau (which eventually became the American Civil Liberties Union) and served as its attorney-in-charge.
Because of her belief in socialism, she co-founded and acted as an editor for the monthly socialist magazine The Liberator which incorporated contributions from some of the most talented artists and writers of the day; for example, Helen Keller, e. e. cummings, and Wanda Gág. Through the use of affordable materials, working-class people were able to purchase it but there was one setback: the cheap materials made the magazine, and Eastman’s work, hard to preserve which helped contribute to her falling into obscurity.
When the Red Scare began in 1919, she was persecuted and surveilled by the FBI. She could no longer send out her journals, and her speeches were being recorded. Toward the end of her life, she was often unable to find work due to being blacklisted for her political actions and opinions.
Eastman died young of nephritis in 1928, at the age of 47. In 2000 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame yet has received little attention in the public eye since then. This is a pity, not only for her sake but because of what we as Americans could gain from remembering her. Her life teaches us that the pipe dreams of today – such as women’s suffrage was for much of her life – can be the rights of tomorrow, and that the best way to advance a cause is through collective action, as she did with the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. We can also see the importance of collective action in her failures — for example, her advocacy of the Equal Rights Amendment did not succeed because, unlike the suffrage cause, there was no mass movement behind it.
Today, some of her once-failed causes are growing in strength. The Equal Rights Amendment has recently been ratified by Nevada, and is soon to be voted on again in Illinois. Socialism has also deservedly been gaining mainstream attention since the campaign of Bernie Sanders. Now that these causes have gained the support of a collective movement, they can advance to establish the rights championed and in supporting them, we will know not only that we are doing the right thing but that we are following in Eastman’s footsteps.
Lisa Petriello is a feminist democratic socialist writer and activist from the East Coast.
McDermott, J. (2016, September 12). Why So Few Women Keep Their Maiden Names. MEL Magazine. Retrieved from https://melmagazine.com/why-so-few-women-keep-their-maiden-names-e371e5950ec6