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Village People: Crystal Eastman

(This post is part of a series called Village People: A Who’s Who of Greenwich Village, which will explore some of this intern’s favorite Village people and stories.)

Crystal Eastman pre-1920.
Crystal Eastman pre-1920. Source: Wikipedia.

Crystal Eastman was born to two Congregationalist ministers in Massachusetts, before the family moved to the ‘burned-over district’ of New York (from where the Shaker and Mormon movements had sprung). There, she was introduced to family friend Samuel Clemens, known to his readers as Mark Twain.

Eastman graduated from Vassar College in 1903, and received her MA in sociology from Colombia University the following year. She graduated second in the class from New York University Law School in 1907. She took her first job investigating labor conditions for the Pittsburgh Survey, and her 1910 report, ‘Work Accidents and the Law’ resulted in the first worker’s compensation law, which she herself drafted. She later worked as an investigating attorney for the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations under Woodrow Wilson. Despite these ties to the government, she was also sometimes called the ‘most dangerous woman in America,’ because of her outspoken nature and support of free-love, suffrage, and the anti-war movement.

In 1912, she managed the unsuccessful Wisconsin suffrage campaign. When she returned east, she, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and others founded the Congressional Union/National Woman’s Party. She co-wrote the Equal Rights Amendment following the passage of the 19th Amendment, and was one of the few socialists to support it.

Eastman was one of the founders of the Woman’s Peace Party during the First World War, and served as president of the organization’s New York branch. She was also executive director of the American Union Against Militarism. She and Roger Baldwin and Norman Thomas organized the National Civil Liberties Bureau to protect conscientious objectors, and this organization soon became the American Civil Liberties Union. She was also a member of the Heterodoxy Club, a radical feminist club that met at 137 MacDougal Street.

Source: Wikipedia.

In 1917, she and her younger brother, Max, founded The Liberator, a radical journal of politics, art, and literature quartered at 138 West 13th Street. The siblings were close, living together at 27 West 11th Street, and together engaging in the community of radicals and bohemians living in the Village. He was drawn into at least some of her political work, helping to found the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage in 1910.

Eastman died of nephritis in 1928. She has since been called one of the most neglected leaders in United States history, having disappeared from historical memory for fifty years after her death. Her role in founding the ACLU has been largely ignored, possibly due to personal differences with Baldwin. Additionally, she was blacklisted during the 1920s, and was only able to find paid work writing for feminist journals during the last years of her life.

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