Eastman at home, c. 1914. Credit: Courtesy of Anne and Cordelia Fuller and Rebecca and Charles Young.


To progressives, Eastman’s investigation of industrial accidents in Pittsburgh, published as Work Accidents and the Law (1910), seemed to be a legal and political breakthrough. She radically revised inherited common law standards, advocating a re-distribution of risk and loss to reconcile common law with common justice. Her formula seemed simple enough. “As I see it,” she explained in 1910, “the risks of trade, borne through all these years by the workmen alone, should in all wisdom and justice be shared by the employer.” 1

Her work so impressed New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes that he appointed her – a 28-year-old woman – to chair a new commission on employer liability. There, Eastman drafted New York’s first workers’ compensation law – the first serious in the United States, often cited as a model by other states.

“The Puddler” (cover of “Employers’ Liability: A Criticism Based on Fact”). Credit: Public Domain.

Actually, two workers’ compensation bills were introduced to the New York Legislature in 1910. Each was designed to circumvent the anticipated legal challenges to the State’s authority to mandate terms in the employment contracts between private companies and their employees.

As expected, however, lawsuits soon challenged workers’ compensation. And in March 1911, the New York Court of Appeals struck down the statute, calling it “plainly revolutionary” and “antagonistic to the basic idea” of reigning concepts of jurisprudence in New York State. 2 The workers’ compensation law was deemed unconstitutional.

Over the next decade, however, numerous American states passed comprehensive workers’ compensation statutes premised on similar reasoning. The final state to pass one was Mississippi, in 1948.

And over time, workers’ compensation statutes would ultimately vindicate Eastman’s framework, allowing social interests to become a rightful aim of modern accident law. 3

Plaque honoring Eastman’s work on workers’ compensation. Credit: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.


  1. Crystal Eastman, “Work Accidents and Employers’ Liability,” The Survey, September 3, 1910.
  2. Ives v. South Buffalo Railroad Company, 94 N.E. 431 (1911). In Negligence and Compensation Cases Annotated, Volume I, edited by Callaghan and Company 1912 (Chicago: FB & C Limited, 2017), 536.
  3. John Fabian Witt, Patriots and Cosmopolitans: Hidden Histories of American Law (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 169
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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