In virtually every arena Crystal Eastman entered, her presence was palpable and difficult to ignore.
The Harlem Renaissance novelist and poet Claude McKay called her “the most beautiful white woman I ever knew.” To him, she embodied a cherished promise, a fervent hope: “all that was fundamentally fine, noble and genuine in American democracy.” 1
The famed Nation Editor Freda Kirchwey remembered, “When she spoke – whether it was to a small committee or a swarming crowd – hearts beat faster and nerves tightened as she talked.” 2 And her letters and surviving phone book document the range of those she talked to – a list that includes many of the social justice giants and icons of her time:
National and international suffrage leaders including Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and Harriot Stanton Blatch, Britain’s Emmeline Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, and Lady Margaret Rhondda.
Progressive champions such as Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement and the Visiting Nurse Service; Florence Kelley, social worker, attorney, and General Secretary of the National Consumers League; and Jane Addams, the eminent public philosopher, pioneer in the American settlement house movement, and internationally-esteemed champion of women’s suffrage and world peace.
She worked closely with Charlotte Perkins Gilman – for many, the preeminent theorist of twentieth-century feminism; Inez Milholland, remembered as the symbol and ultimately the martyr of the battle for the vote; Paul Kellogg, the progressive journalist and urban reformer; John Reed, the revolutionary writer and activist; and Oswald Garrison Villard, grandson of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the New York Evening Post and later The Nation, the man who sketched the blueprint for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and then financed it.
She also joined forces with prominent politicians including the progressive, anti-corporate Wisconsin governor and U.S. Senator Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, his formidable wife Belle Case LaFollette, Victor Berger, the first Socialist elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and Morris Hillquit, the five-time socialist candidate for Congress and the first socialist ever to run for Mayor of New York City. She worked with institution-builders such as Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood; Stanford’s first president David Starr Jordan; and the Zionist leader and reform rabbi Stephen S. Wise.
She knew the muckrakers Lincoln Steffens, Jacob Riis, William Hard, and Ray Stannard Baker, and millionaire reformers such as Mrs. Malcolm J. Forbes and Henry Ford. And across her life and career, she traveled in the company of a transatlantic crew of boundary-breakers and innovators, including Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Clarence Darrow, John Dewey, Frances Perkins, Louis Brandeis, Jeannette Rankin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rudolph Valentino, Rebecca West, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Sir Norman Angell, George Bernard Shaw, Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
“Outspoken (often tactless), determined…and courageous,” as her civil liberties colleague Roger Baldwin recalled, Eastman meant something to people. 3 She “sails into a room with her head high,” the sculptor Clare Sheridan commented in her diary, “and the face of a triumphant Victory.” 4 She stood for something. Her WILPF friend Jeannette Lowe marveled simply, “you wouldn’t believe how free she was.” 5
- McKay, A Long Way from Home, 83. Eastman helped McKay get to Russia, writing to every radical she knew who might be able to help him and booking him on a steamer to Liverpool the same night she was to set sail for London. He carried her bon voyage note with him as inspiration and memento, weeping as he read it for the last time when he learned she had passed away. See A Long Way from Home, 122.
- Freda Kirchwey “Crystal Eastman,” The Nation, August 8, 1928, 124.
- Roger Baldwin, “Recollections of a Life in Civil Liberties,” Part I, Civil Liberties Review 2:2 (1975): 54.
- Clare Sheridan, Mayfair to Moscow: Clare Sheridan’s Diary (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1921), 71.
- Blanche Wiesen Cook, “Female Support Networks and Political Activism: Lillian Wald, Crystal Eastman, Emma Goldman,” Chrysalis 3 (Autumn 1977), 47. See also, Cook in Peace and Freedom, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, U.S. Section, Vol. 35, 1975, 14.