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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

Crystal Eastman ’1903

“Life [is] a big battle for the complete feminist,” wrote the radical feminist, activist, and civil rights advocate Crystal Eastman, and few have been better equipped for fighting the battle than Eastman herself.

Crystal Catherine Eastman was born on June 25, 1881, to Rev. Samuel Eastman and Annis Ford Eastman. Although the family lived in Marlborough, Massachusetts, it is probable that Crystal was born at a family cottage in Glenora, New York. Samuel Eastman and Annis Ford had met at Oberlin College and were married in 1875, shortly after the Congregational minister secured his first appointment. In the fall of 1881, the family moved to Canandaigua, New York, where Crystal’s father took the pulpit of the First Congregational Church. An older brother, Morgan, died of scarlet fever when Crystal was three, and her two surviving brothers, Anstice and Max, were born in 1878 and 1896.

In 1886, chronic illness, probably stemming from severe pneumonia Samuel Eastman had contracted while serving in the Civil War, led to a breakdown, and he was forced to resign his post. As the family’s resources declined, Annis Eastman’s role changed radically. The busy mother became a teacher in local schools, often returning there to give talks on Sunday evenings. As her husband’s strength waxed and waned, he was able to start a small grocery business, and Annis began to receive and to accept offers to preach at Sunday services at local country churches.

Rev. Annis Ford Eastman, Crystal Eastman’s mother
Rev. Annis Ford Eastman, Crystal Eastman’s mother

In 1892, she was appointed minister to the Congregational church in Brookton, New York, and shortly thereafter was ordained as the first woman Congregational minister by a ministerial council headed by the Reverend Thomas K. Beecher, pastor of the nationally known, progressive and nondenominational Park Church in Elmira.

Annis Eastman’s fame increased, as did her public. In 1893, she presented a paper, entitled “The Home and Its Foundations,” before the Congress of Women, held in the Women’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, and in 1895, she delivered the sermon before an international audience at the inaugural religious service of the second triennial session of the National Council of Women of the United States. After a brief time as pastor in the church at West Bloomfield, New York, in 1894—along with her husband, whose health was continuing to improve— she accepted a joint assistant ministry to the Park Church. On the death, in 1900, of Thomas Beecher—the brother of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe—the Eastmans were appointed to take his place.

Eastman cited her mother as one of the first and greatest influences in her journey into feminism, and she seems to have been eager to emulate her. At the age of 15, at an informal, twice-weekly “Supposium” organized by her mother for the Glenora summer community, she presented her first paper on feminism, entitled “Women,” in which she declared, “…the only way to be happy is to have an absorbing interest in life which is not bound up with any particular person. No woman who allows husband and children to absorb her whole time and interest is safe against disaster.” This fierce independence and dedication to self-reliance became defining features of Eastman’s life and work, and they defined the feminist revolution that she later helped spark.

It is no surprise that a young woman devoted to the advancement and liberation of women the world over chose to attend Vassar. Eastman had been dreaming of Vassar since she was a teenage girl, seeing the college as a necessary and essential part of her feminist nutriment. Entering Vassar in the of fall of 1899, she immediately made her voice heard, contributing frequently to the Miscellany and singing first soprano in the choir and second soprano in the Vassar Choral Club. Eastman was an active member of the Athletics Association, and an Alpha Chapter member of the Philatetheis theatre company during her entire education at Vassar. Although she doubtless enjoyed the Greek Supper Club (whose motto was “Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow is Monday”) and the German Club ( “The Faust Club once, the German Club now,/Greeting the public with smile and bow”), Eastman’s engagement with Civitas, a relatively new organization that focused on “social and intellectual study of present day subjects,” was most prophetic of her future. She was a Civitas member during her entire four years at Vassar and its chairman in her senior year.

Crystal Eastman’s course of study also foreshadowed her later work and interests. To the largely required courses in the first two years, she added German, and in her junior year she studied American Colonial History and American Politics with Lucy Maynard Salmon, Shakespeare with the Canadian internationalist and populist Florence Keys, and, starting also in her third year, she added seven courses in economics, most of them with the early social economist, Herbert Mills. Among these courses were “The Development of Industrial Society,” “The Relation of the State to Monopolies,” “The Labor Problem, and Attempts towards its Solution,” “Charities and Corrections,” and the capstone “Economic Seminary.”

Crystal Eastman, Vassar graduate
Crystal Eastman, Vassar graduate

Crystal delivered one of the Class Day speeches at her graduation, in 1903, recounting events of the class’s first two years. And the text accompanying her photograph in The Vassarion—amidst comments such as “Straightway all her polka dots began a lively dance” and “I often confuse my conscience with parental authority”— foreshadowed Crystal Eastman’s lifelong career in a lively paraphrase of Shylock: “For suffrage is the badge of all our tribe.” During her entire education, from before Vassar through law school, Eastman remained a dedicated proponent and advocate of women’s rights, particularly women’s suffrage, which she believed to be a basic right.

Always vulnerable, family finances in 1903 could not accommodate both Crystal’s plans for graduate school and Max’s continuation at Williams, so her brother stayed home for a year while Crystal earned her master’s degree in sociology from Columbia. She received her degree in 1904, having been deeply influenced by two of her teachers: the eminent economist John Bates Clark and the sociologist Franklin Henry Giddings. Educated partly in Europe, Clark was developing his notion of a “natural law” which he saw as governing competitive markets and which, if perfectly realized, balanced market structures, labor, and regulation so that each component was rewarded exactly in proportion to its contribution. The pragmatism of this concept may have appealed more to Eastman than its movement away from Clark’s earlier, more socialist aversion to capital, but it also fit well with the powerful influence of Giddings, holder of the first chaired American professorship in sociology. In his essay, “Crystal Eastman and the Internationalist Beginnings of American Civil Liberties,” the historian and professor of law John Fabian Witt cites as fundamental to Eastman’s later work Giddings’s proposition that “the cautious use of the state [combined] with reasonable competitive freedoms, could ensure the proper mix of liberty and equality” and his certainty “that the instruments of the social policymaker were the insights of sociology and statistics, not old nostrums about rights and individualism.”

Fulfilling her agreement with her brother, Crystal returned to Elmira and taught high school English and history for the next two years. She had decided to study law, but it wasn’t to be at Columbia, as women were not to be admitted to Columbia law school for another two decades. In the fall of 1890, New York University had established, under the direction of the Swiss lawyer and educator, Dr. Emily Kempin, the Woman’s Law Class, a program intended to provide legal advice and experience to, largely, prosperous women, both to aid in the protection of their rights and to better equip them for social work among the city’s poor. With the encouragement of the university’s progressive new chancellor, Henry Mitchell MacCracken (whose son would later become president of Vassar) the project flourished. When Crystal Eastman returned to New York City, she was able to enroll in New York University Law School.

Crystal had already sampled the social and intellectual life of Greenwich Village. Sylvia A. Law, professor of law, medicine, and psychiatry at NYU, in her essay, “Crystal Eastman, NYU Law Graduate” describes an earlier visit to the area to take an examination for a settlement house position that would help meet some of her law school costs: “She characterized the trip as ‘one of the most royal good times’ of her life. The exam she had to take proved ‘easy and hard enough to enjoy.’ Eastman landed the job, and then found a place to eat at the Greenwich Settlement House where the ‘cranks,’ ‘reformers,’ and ‘every really interesting up and doing, radical’ gathered.”

Beginning law school, Crystal also began singing lessons, alternately noting in letters to her family her preference of one of her new endeavors over the other. In an essay on Eastman, “Labor’s Love Lost,” prepared for the Stanford Women’s Legal History Project, Erin F. Davis demonstrates that Eastman’s enthusiasm and energies at this time were spread widely among a fascinating mix of artists, writers, and political activists, her work at the Greenwich Settlement House with her friend and mentor Mary Simkhovitch, and her study of law. A letter to Max, quoted by Professor Law, captures the varied and exciting life of her generation in Greenwich Village: “I love [New York] so for the people that are there and the thousands of things they do and think about. Of course I don’t mean the rich ones that drive up and down Fifth Ave., nor the very poor ones, who merely make me sad. But all the interesting between ones who really know how to live,—who are working hard at something all the time; and especially the radicals, the reformers, the students,—who really live to help, and yet get so much fun out of it,—because they are open-minded, and eager over every new movement, and because they know when it is right for them to let go and amuse themselves and because they can laugh, even at themselves. It seems to me there are so many more of such people in New York than anywhere else.”

As she was entering her final term at NYU in January 1907, Crystal’s enthusiasm for her New York City coaxed Max to join her in Greenwich Village to pursue his career as a writer.

The young Max Eastman
The young Max Eastman

Through one of Crystal’s friends, Max met John Dewey, who offered him a job teaching “Principles of Science” in Dewey’s department of philosophy and psychology at Columbia. As her final exams approached, she expressed some concern about her final examinations, confessing to her mother, “I hope I passed but I’m not a bit sure…I forgot many of the maddening little reasonless rules.” She received her law degree in the spring of 1907.

Crystal set out to establish a career in labor law, a field in which women, even those few in the legal profession, did not take part. A first step came in the fall of 1907, when her friend, journalist and activist Paul Kellogg, asked her to help with a two-month project in Pittsburgh where, with funding from the Russell Sage Foundation, he was setting out on the first major survey of deaths in the workplace. The combination of her law training with work in the field—researching deaths, speaking with the survivors—appealed to her more than she’d expected. “These investigations,” Professor Law writes, “in particular the moving stories of the workers and their families exposed Eastman to the human cost of the pressure for profit, unbridled by either incentives for safety or responsibility for the resulting losses…. She wrote to her mother from the Pittsburgh Law Library, ‘this [legal] work interests me so much that I am dead sure I want to stop this investigating at Xmas time and get at my profession.’”

When, however, new funding extended Kellogg’s Pittsburgh Survey beyond its original two months and to include workplace injuries, Eastman stayed on to head a team investigating working conditions in Pittsburgh and analyzing the many legal aspects of workers’ and employers’ responsibilities.

Eastman around the time of the Pittsburgh Survey
Eastman around the time of the Pittsburgh Survey

“Isn’t it amusing,” she wrote to her mother, “how this two months’ Pittsburgh venture has turned out? I don’t mind now at all, it’s a big thing I’m doing. Besides, I have thought myself out of the feeling of hurry about law or my ‘career.’ I’m going to live, not hurry.’”

After brief glimpses of the team’s work in Pittsburgh appeared in magazines and journals, the publication in the spring of 1909 by the New York Branch of the American Association for Labor Legislation of “Employers’ Liability,” A Criticism Based of Facts, by Crystal Eastman, the first report of the Pittsburgh Survey, caused a stir in both academic and social welfare circles. The depth and meticulous balance of Eastman’s analysis, along with the telling details of individual cases—aided by photographs by documentary photographer Lewis Hine—brought Crystal praise and requests for public presentation of her work. “Oh,” she wrote to her mother, “isn’t it fun to be famous.”

Also, early in 1909, Governor Charles Evans Hughes appointed her to a position—the only one given to a woman—on the New York State Commission of Employee’s Liability and Causes of Industrial Accidents, Unemployment and Lack of Farm Labor. Elected secretary of the commission—the only salaried post—she wrote The First Report of the New York State Commission (1910).

With ‘Employers’ Liability,’ Crystal Eastman became ‘famous.’
With ‘Employers’ Liability,’ Crystal Eastman became ‘famous.’

This work and her subsequent findings from the Pittsburgh Survey, Work Accidents and the Law, also published in 1910, became pivotal and formative documents in the workers’ rights movement. The brother and sister also joined efforts in 1909 as Crystal made her first major contribution to the suffrage movement by aiding Max’s establishment of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, which became an influential national organization that fought for women’s voting rights.

While working for state commission, Eastman drafted the legislation that would become the first workers’ compensation law in the nation and would set a standard for other state workers’ compensation laws enacted across the country. She would later go on to serve as an investigating attorney for the Commission on Industrial Relations under President Wilson.

In addition to dramatically launching her legal career as a labor advocate, in 1910, Eastman married her long-time friend and lover Wallace Benedict and moved with him to his hometown, Milwaukee. She was the campaign manager for the unsuccessful 1912 Wisconsin suffrage referendum, and shortly afterward in 1913, she returned to New York. The marriage ended in divorce in 1915. As a statement of financial and personal independence, Eastman refused to accept alimony, stating that to accept her former husband’s money would be to betray herself as both a woman and a feminist.

Crystal Eastman Benedict around 1912
Crystal Eastman Benedict around 1912

Eastman’s divorce was due in large part to moving back to New York City in 1913 in order play a larger part in the national suffrage movement by co-founding the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (later known as the National Woman’s Party). Eastman traveled to Budapest for the Seventh Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance the same year. While there, she met other women working for suffrage around the globe. She brought her international experience back to her work with CUWS in New York in the form of tactics such as mass demonstrations and ongoing picketing campaigns.

The start of the First World War in 1914 brought about many dramatic changes in the political atmosphere. Eastman joined forces with prominent social reformers, activists, and friends Lillian Wald and Jane Addams to form the American Union Against Militarism to work against the United States’ involvement. The trio lobbied President Wilson and his advisors, as well as Congress, against American participation. In addition to the war, the Union was also against the arms trade, conscription and American “imperialism” around the globe.

Despite the fact that the United States didn’t officially join the war until 1917, national economic and political interest in the situation in Europe led to actions threatening to the civil liberties of anyone who took an anti-war position. In order to combat these infringements, Eastman and Jane Addams founded the National Woman’s Peace Party in 1915, whose only goal was to defend free speech during wartime.

In 1915 Eastman also began working with the radical anarchist Emma Goldman on issues such as the right to birth control and the legalization of prostitution. It was during this time that Eastman met and married a fellow anti-war activist and intellectual, British poet and editor Walter Fuller, with whom she eventually had two children, Geoffrey and Annis. Prior to the births of her children, Eastman stepped down from her position with the American Union Against Militarism, making time for new activist projects.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the country saw further government infringement on personal liberties, especially freedom of speech and of the press. As a direct result, Eastman co-founded the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB), which became known as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920. The mission of the NCLB was to defend the Bill of Rights, or as Eastman put it, “To maintain something over here that will be worth coming back to when the weary war is over.”

Eastman’s brother, Max, a prominent socialist activist himself, experienced firsthand the intense governmental scrutiny of the press during the war. Max Eastman’s social philosophy and arts magazine, The Masses, was forced to close in 1917 after being targeted by charges brought under the 1917 Espionage Act. In 1918, the Eastman siblings started The Liberator, a new magazine that carried on The Masses’ political project.

The first issue of ‘The Liberator,’ March 1918
The first issue of ‘The Liberator,’ March 1918

“The world is in the rapids,” stated an editorial in the magazine’s introductory issue, “the possibilities of change in this day are beyond all imagination. We must unite our hands and voices to make the end of this war the beginning of an age of freedom and happiness for mankind undreamed by those whose minds comprehend only political and military events.… [The Liberator] will fight in the struggle of labor. It will fight for the ownership and control of industry by the workers, and will present vivid and accurate news of the labor and socialist movements in all parts of the world.”

Despite Eastman and the NCLB’s best efforts, political persecution of socialists and communists continued. In 1919 Eastman and many of her friends found themselves the victims of the “Palmer Raids”—strenuous efforts by U. S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to arrest and deport social and political radicals. They were labeled as “Reds” and were considered a dangerous threat to America. Their speeches were recorded, and their journals—including The Liberator—were banned from being sent by mail. Subsequently, Eastman was one of the prominent women of the time who were eventually blacklisted.

In 1922, unable to find work in the United States because of her blacklisted status, Eastman and her husband left America for London. While there, she worked for several newspapers and participated in the campaign for voting equality for women. Still, living essentially in exile, the five years that Eastman and her husband spent in London were the darkest of Eastman’s life. She confided to friends and family that she felt betrayed by her country and lost without the ability to fight for freedom.

In 1927, Walter Fuller died of a stroke, and shortly thereafter, Eastman returned to New York City to look for work once more. Ten months after returning to the U.S., on July 8, 1928, Crystal Eastman died from nephritis;

Crystal Eastman in later life
Crystal Eastman in later life

she was 48 years old. She had been planning to write a book about women, and upon her death, Jamaican-American poet and novelist Claude McKay wrote, “Crystal Eastman was a great-hearted woman whose life was big with primitive and exceptional gestures. She never wrote that Book of Woman which was imprinted on her mind. …And so life was cheated of one contribution about women that no other woman could write.”

In March 2002, Eastman was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, primarily for her role in establishing the ACLU. ACLU’s national President, Nadine Strossen, upon Eastman’s induction, wrote, “Crystal Eastman’s determination to breathe life into the Bill of Rights in 1920 provided the nation with the first chapter in the story of the ACLU…Her courageous struggle to realize equal rights for all is carried on in the work of the ACLU today, reminding us that no fight for liberty ever stays won.”

Although the last years of her life were indeed “a big battle,” marked with tragedy, exile and heartache, Eastman, as her obituary in The Nation said, was and will forever be remembered as “a symbol of what the free woman might be.”


Blanche Wiesen Cook, ed., Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution, Oxford University Press, New York, 1978.

Phyllis Eckhaus, “Restless Women: The Pioneering Alumnae of New York University School of Law.” New York University Law Review, vol. 66, no.6 (December 1, 1991): 1996. (accessed April 7, 2009).

Sylvia A. Law, “Crystal Eastman, NYU Law Graduate.” New York University Law Review, vol. 66, no. 6 (December 1, 1991): 1962. (accessed April 2, 2013).

Thomas C. Leonard, “‘A Certain Rude Honesty’:
John Bates Clark as a Pioneering Neoclassical Economist,” History of Political Economy, vol. 35, no.3, (fall 2003).

John Fabian Witt, “Crystal Eastman and the Internationalist Beginnings of American Civil Liberties,” Duke Law Journal, vol. 54, (2004)

The Vassarion 1899–1900, 1900–1901, 1901–1902, 1902–1903

The New York Times, “A Convention of Women: Second Triennial Session of the National Council,” February 18, 1895.

External Links

Erin F. Davis, “Labor’s Love Lost?: Crystal Eastman’s Contribution to Workers’ Compensation Reform

ES 2007; CJ, LG 2013