Eastman at Glenora, c. 1899. Credit: Eastman, Mann, Wingard Genealogical Collection.


The only daughter of two Congregational ministers – both feminists – Crystal Eastman came of age in New York across two centuries. Millennial in spirit, her political consciousness was forged in a moment of stirring aspiration and fierce ambition, seductive national promises and dramatic social change. Her education – a BA at Vassar in 1903, MA in Sociology at Columbia in 1904, JD from New York University Law School in 1907 – bolstered her wellspring feeling that from now on, everything could be different, everything could be re-made.

That sense of possibility meeting destiny, in all its contention and hope, animated Eastman all her life.

Lady Liberty overlooking lower Manhattan. Credit: public domain

Eastman’s activist career took her to the apex of Progressivism, the final triumph of universal suffrage, the opening battle for reproductive rights, the cataclysm of the First World War, the defining questions of democratic civil liberties, the passion and muscle of revolutionary feeling in Europe as it grew. She navigated a culture of increasing polarization – an America that produced both Alice Paul and Emily Post, the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan, utopian hopes for permanent peace around the world and lurking fears of citizen spies next door. She saw the rise of big media and celebrity culture, the popularization of Freud, the dawn of the two-career family, the ascendancy of the corporation in American life.

In so many ways, her life is where our own times began.

Met Life tower under construction, June 1908. Credit: Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

And in this restive climate, Eastman was propelled to great heights and her life was punctuated by piercing losses. She made many controversial choices, but she always stood up to be counted. A policy innovator, media activist, initiator, organizer, publisher, working mother, and persistently provocative voice, she literally tried to change the course of history while insisting over and over on the right to live a woman’s life on her own terms.

“Portia Appointed By the Governor,” 1910. Credit: public domain.
Family photos credits: Courtesy of Ann and Cordelia Fuller and Rebecca and Charles Young.
Crystal Eastman by Amy Aronson

The social justice issues to which Eastman dedicated her life – gender equality and human rights, nationalism and globalization, political censorship and media control, worker benefits and family balance, and the monumental questions of war, sovereignty, force, and freedom – remain some of the most consequential questions of our own time. Available from Oxford University Press.

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