Eastman with Alice Paul and others sewing suffrage flag. Credit: Records of the National Woman’s Party, Library of Congress.

Suffrage and Feminism

In the 1911-12 campaign, Wisconsin suffragists believed their time had finally come. Their state was a Socialist stronghold and home to sizeable Scandinavian populations — groups that were positively disposed to suffrage. Plus, it was the home state of Robert LaFollette, the former crusading governor, then progressive U.S. senator, who was a leading equal suffrage proponent on the national stage.

Suffragists thought Wisconsin would turn the tide in favor of their cause. Combined with Michigan and Ohio, this slate of states east of the Mississippi promised to be the tipping point for the march of equal suffrage from the farms and frontiers of the West to the industrial and political centers of the East.

“The Awakening” (1915). Credit: Library of Congress.

Eastman organized a sophisticated, exhaustive campaign organizing every voting precinct across the state.

“Votes for Women” 1912 button. Credit: Chudnow Museum, Milwaukee.
Pink ballot. Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.

It was a vicious battle – one of the most infamous in suffrage history – laced with misinformation and episodes of foul play by the powerful brewing industry and other “antis” who were opposed to women’s suffrage.

Eastman hired a private detective to investigate the sources of dirty tricks such as the targeted release of false information that was circulated at pivotal moments in the campaign. She twice hired attorneys to contest the legality of last-minute obstacles suddenly thrown up in their way by elected officials in Wisconsin.

Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.
Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.

But the suffrage referendum went down, almost two to one, in unprecedented turnout. At the NAWSA convention that followed, Eastman joined forces with her Vassar friend Lucy Burns and an emerging cadre of activist peers – younger, educated, more confrontational suffrage women, many of them based on the East Coast. On the advice of Jane Addams, Eastman was the first person Burns and her friend Alice Paul contacted to help organize the “militant wing” of the suffrage movement that in 1916 would become the National Woman’s Party (NWP).

The group set their sights on a gigantic national campaign for a Constitutional amendment. The nearly five decades of exhausting, expensive state-by-state campaigning for the vote had yielded too little after too long. They demanded full enfranchisement, full formal citizenship for women – the right to vote, on all matters, all at once.

The “Great Demand” banner. Credit: National Museum of American History

Beginning in 1913, NWP activists organized spectacular demonstrations and bold public actions to apply pressure on elected officials who were otherwise unaccountable to most American women. After all, women lacked the vote, so why would elected officials entertain their concerns or accede to their demands?

Paul, Burns, Eastman, and many of their colleagues knew the militant suffragettes in Britain – activists whose spectacular civic actions were designed to mobilize public opinion around suffrage and push members of Parliament to action. The American militant suffragists similarly targeted the political party in power – Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats – to make their stand.

One Woman, Inaugural Suffrage Parade 1913. Credit: Library of Congress.

After a legendary struggle, the Susan B. Anthony Suffrage Amendment was finally passed by Congress in 1919. It was ratified by three-fourths of the states in 1920 – led by Eastman’s old stomping ground, the state of Wisconsin, on June 10, 1919.

Not long after the vote was finally won, the NWP launched a second game-changing campaign. In 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was first introduced in Congress. Eastman has been credited as a co-author of the controversial Amendment and was a fierce advocate for it in public and in the national and international press. The battle for passage of the ERA, recently revived, continues to this day.

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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