Crystal Eastman was an activist and initiator, a leader and champion who left her mark on many of the great social justice movements that defined the twentieth century – labor, feminism, internationalism, free speech, peace.
Today, we might call her an “intersectional” activist and social change pioneer. From the dawn of her public life, Eastman worked to confederate multiple movements by forging ties among shared experiences of inequality. Across her life and career, she persistently raised the complex relations of oppression and privilege both among and within activist groups, all in an effort to link organizational agendas and collective actions under one vast emancipatory rubric.
Even though Eastman graduated second in her class from law school, she could not land a job. At the time, the legal profession resisted the entrance of women more fiercely than did other professional fields.
So, she accepted a temporary position investigating industrial accidents with Paul Kellogg’s now-famous Pittsburgh Survey. It was a high-stakes assignment. At the time, work accidents were an urgent social problem in the United States, and provisions for workers and families left destitute by injuries or death were minimal compared with every other industrializing nation around the world.
Suffrage and Feminism
Eastman cut her teeth as a movement organizer when she became the hired gun of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In 1911-12, she was tasked to organize the massive suffrage drive in Wisconsin, a powerful industrial battleground.
NAWSA President Anna Howard Shaw thought Eastman exceptionally well suited to mobilize a tantalizing assortment of demographic advantages into an astute and energized statewide campaign. “She is a live, splendid little woman who will touch some live wires and set things going,” Shaw said. 1
Internationalism and World Peace
As World War I began in Europe in 1914, Eastman helped forge the leading edge of the “new peace movement.” At a time when American peace work had begun to align with the concerns of expanding global capitalism, these progressive peace activists instead allied world peace with global democracy, international human rights, and economic justice.
Eastman was not alone in advocating this humanistic approach to permanent peace around the world, but she was an acknowledged leader, perhaps the best-known radical pacifist in America.
On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I. When Congress soon passed the Espionage Act, and months later the Sedition Act, it became clear that dissent would no longer be tolerated by the United States government. Democratic liberties like free speech and assembly could now be legally suppressed in the name of wartime national security.
Suddenly, both the aims and the methods of Eastman and her anti-war colleagues were becoming illegal. Indeed, to many powerful people in the country and the U.S. government, continuing to protest the war was beginning to look a lot like treason.
Writer and Radical
After U.S. intervention in World War I in 1917, Eastman tried to embrace the arguments of some antiwar colleagues who had come to accept the war as a prelude to economic and political reforms, such as nationalizing infrastructure industries and advancing greater economic equality. But she found she simply could not support a zealous war effort; it offended her “common sense [and] regard for human life.” 2
The power – and public acceptance – of the Espionage Act convinced her that pre-war strategies of citizen mobilization were all but fruitless. Just days after Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks secured the triumph of the Russian Revolution in November 1917, Eastman concluded, “The only great movement against war must be the radical movement.” 3