Women We Celebrate
Crystal Eastman was a founding member of the Congressional Union, which later became the National Woman’s Party. A teacher and lawyer, she worked hard for suffrage and labor rights. Eastman led a chapter of the NWP while working for peace during the war years, and helped to found the American Union Against Militarism and what would become the American Civil Liberties Union. She also aided the NWP’s international work.
Crystal Eastman was born June 25, 1881 to Samuel Eastman and Annis Ford Eastman, both of whom served as Reverends at Park Church in Elmira, New York. Annis was an early supporter of suffrage and women’s rights—a path that her daughter would also choose.
Eastman attended Vassar College where she received her Bachelor of Arts in 1903 and her Master of Arts in 1904. At Vassar, Eastman first met Lucy Burns (later the cofounder of the National Woman’s Party), and upon graduating Vassar, Eastman was already a vocal advocate for women’s equality.
Eastman worked as a teacher for two years in New York before attending New York University Law School. She was admitted to the New York Bar in 1907. Eastman quickly assumed leadership roles as a work-place liability lawyer. She authored a report titled, “Work-Accidents and the Law,” which was published in a well-known six-volume Pittsburg Survey conducted by the Russell Sage Foundation. By 1909, Eastman was appointed secretary of the New York State Employer’s Liability Commission as its only woman member. In 1914, she worked for the Federal Commission on Industrial Relations studying labor court decisions.
Beginning in 1911, Eastman took on her first leadership role in the suffrage cause, managing the Wisconsin suffrage campaign of the Political Equality League. In 1912, Lucy Burns invited her to be one of four founding members of the Congressional Committee of NAWSA. When Alice Paul founded the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage in 1913, Eastman was a founding member of its Executive Committee. After 1915, she served on the Advisory Council of the Congressional Union and later, the National Woman’s Party.
In 1914, Eastman traveled throughout the Midwest and Northwest on behalf of the Congressional Union advocating for the federal suffrage amendment. During the Chicago Woman’s Party Convention in June 1916, Eastman was one of the lead speakers at the Auditorium Hotel to address the new formation of the National Woman’s Party, founded to organize woman voters to support the suffrage amendment. She stated,
“The hope has been realized,—the dream, the vision has come true. You women voters have got together in thousands, have organized and pledged yourselves to our service. It is unbelievable, friends, but it is true; and it is the greatest, the most thrilling, the most idealistic moment in the whole suffrage movement.” (The Suffragist, June 17, 1916)
When America entered World War I, Eastman became a staunch advocate for peace. During the war years she led the New York chapter of the NWP while simultaneously helping to form the American Union Against Militarism, a pacifist organization that responded to World War I. In 1917, Crystal Eastman and others founded the National Civil Liberties Bureau, which would later become the American Civil Liberties Union. Crystal and her brother Max Eastman also helped found a socialist magazine in 1918 titled The Liberator. One year later, Eastman was blacklisted in the United States during the Red Scare and therefore unable to find work. She later moved to London with her husband, the British poet Walter Fuller.
While abroad, Eastman aided the National Woman’s Party in their international efforts and helped organize the London chapter. She contributed many articles to the National Woman’s Party’s Equal Rights magazine during this time. She also returned to her roots as a labor lawyer, joining as an executive of the Open Door Council, which pushed for equal opportunities for women workers in Britain.
Shortly after moving back to the United States and mourning the death of her husband, Eastman passed away at 48 years old from nephritis in July 1928 in Erie, Pennsylvania. Upon her death, The Nation wrote in her obituary: “As a feminist, Crystal Eastman was more than an ardent militant advocate of votes for her sex. She was to thousands of young women and young men a symbol of what the free woman might be.” And on August 18, 1918, Katherine Ward Fisher wrote in an obituary for Equal Rights: “Crystal Eastman went forward with the advance guard of every liberating movement of our time.”