In the first decades of the 20th century, there were gathered in Greenwich Village a few hundred women and men of radical temperament—artists, intellectuals, activists—bent on making a revolution in cultural consciousness. European modernism had crossed the Atlantic, and a great refusal to conform to the dictates of a worn-out American bourgeoisie was filling the air, one that made art and transgression and politics seem (as they always do in times of social rebellion) interchangeable. What was wanted, as one of them put it, was a “regeneration of the just-before-dawn of a new day in American art and literature and living-of-life as well as in politics.”
They were organizing in the name of experience, direct experience. To know oneself through unmarried sex, transgressive opinion, eccentric dress—these became the startling conventions of downtown radicalism in the years surrounding World War I. Among the women and men then flocking to the Village were many whose names are now inscribed in the cultural histories of the time: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eugene O’Neill, Margaret Sanger, John Reed, Randolph Bourne, Max Eastman, and his sister, Crystal. Actually, it was Crystal who got there first.
Crystal Eastman was born in 1881 to a father who was a Congregational minister and a mother who soon became a minister. Both parents served as pastors to a number of churches in upstate New York, and that’s where Eastman and her three brothers, of whom Max was the youngest, grew up. The parents were among those 19th century Christians imbued with humanist values—they supported abolition, universal suffrage, justice for the poor, education for women—and they poured it all into the children, most especially into Crystal.
As Amy Aronson’s informative new biography, Crystal Eastman: A Revolutionary Life, tells us, the passion for social reform was mother’s milk to Eastman. She grew up hungry for an education that would prepare her to do good in the world. Between 1899 and 1907, she attended Vassar College, Columbia University for an MA, and finally New York University Law School. She also fell in with a variety of Greenwich Village progressives—suffragists, settlement house workers, crusading journalists—who provided her with the company needed to begin a life of activism that eventually included (very nearly equally) the struggle over suffrage for women, legislation for worker safety, and the abolishment of militarism.
Eastman’s commitment to so many causes often resulted in her losing the position of leadership to which she was probably entitled, but she saw the world as all of a piece and couldn’t help trying to join the ills of society into a united reform effort. In 1910, she delivered a speech, Aronson tells us, in which she lamely tried to bridge the suffrage and labor movements by arguing that suffragists should appropriate the radical labor tactic of the strike to hasten the success of their cause: “If I had my way…we would tell the men of this country we were not going to work any more…until they gave us a share in the government of the country…. If this strike were possible I am willing to wager that women would be given the ballot within several hours.”
In the course of her life, Eastman worked for or helped found the American Association for Labor Legislation, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the Women’s Peace Party, and the American Union Against Militarism, which, in time, morphed into the American Civil Liberties Union. On behalf of her twin political loves—suffrage and labor legislation—she traveled widely throughout the years, making speeches, writing articles, organizing campaigns. She also coedited the left-wing magazine The Liberator and produced a now-classic report on industrial accidents. Two weeks after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, she delivered a speech in which she said that when we know a disaster has occurred because the laws of the state permitted the absence of safety measures, “we want to put somebody in jail,” but “when the dead bodies of girls are found piled up against locked doors leading to the exits after a factory fire…what we want is to start a revolution.” She married twice (both marriages failed) and had two children. In 1928, at the age of 47, she died of kidney disease.
And there we have Eastman’s résumé. Now for something of Eastman herself.
Greenwich Village, in the early years of the 20th century, was a working-class neighborhood that had let the bohemians in. Eastman was enchanted. Describing the crowded street scene in a letter to her mother, she wrote, “Everyone is out. Mothers and fathers and babies line the doorsteps…little girls playing…in the middle of the street, and boys running in and out, chasing each other.” And to Max, urging him to join her when he graduated from college, she wrote, “I love it so for the people that are there and the thousands of things they do and think about.” The women and men she especially loved were “all the interesting between ones who really know how to live—who are working hard at something all the time; and especially the radicals, the reformers, the students—because they are open-minded, and eager over every new movement, and because they know when it is right for them to let go and amuse themselves and because they can laugh, even at themselves.” (Pace Emma Goldman: If I can’t dance, I’m not coming to your revolution.)
Eastman was bent on living a life of meaning that would include, as she liked to say, loving hard as well as working hard. (Rosa Luxemburg said almost the identical thing when she urged socialists to make the revolution, yes, but not give up the joy of life.) Eastman had many suitors—she was tall and beautiful and glowed when she talked—but somehow passion with a capital “P” eluded her. One man after another fell short. Nothing, she wrote her mother, “could be as soul destroying as to discover a poverty of fine feelings and appreciativeness in the man you must live with all your life and whose children would be yours also.”
Time passed, and soon Eastman was close to 30, and although her days were packed—politics, activism, and a vast social life—she began to suffer from an inner discontent. “I have been feeling lately, somewhat lost and stranded, as if I couldn’t tell where or with what people I belonged,” she wrote her mother. These feelings did not slow down her work (nothing could except being near death), but she grew weary of waiting for the right man to appear. In such a mood it was inevitable that she would marry, and probably just as inevitable that it would be to the wrong man for the wrong reasons.
In 1912, the National American Woman Suffrage Association took Eastman on as a salaried organizer to run its campaign in Wisconsin. That year there was great hope that a turning point had been reached in the 64-year struggle for the vote. A considerable number of states now had suffrage for women on the ballot, and Wisconsin seemed ripe for the next great push. NAWSA thought Eastman was the right woman for the job: She was young and enthusiastic and a dynamic worker.
Eastman took the job, Aronson tells us, and moved to Wisconsin, though not for suffrage but for love. The previous year she had married Wallace Benedict, known as “Bennie,” an insurance agent from Milwaukee she’d been introduced to on one of her organizing trips to the Midwest. When they met, Bennie’s interest in labor organizing seemed as passionate as hers, his animal energy an excitement, and his “sturdy boyish masculinity,” as Max Eastman put it, in striking contrast with “the cerebral social worker types” that his sister met in New York—a distinct attraction. He was also “one of those rare males…who like to have the woman they love amount to something.” But Max never liked Bennie. Crystal, he insisted, was in “work accidents” for social justice, Bennie for the insurance fees.
In Wisconsin, her virtues and vices as a leader emerged full force. On the one hand, as an organizer, she was superbly skilled and accomplished a great deal, speaking everywhere, easily countering every argument against suffrage that came her way, defending eloquently the moral rightness of the cause. On the other, her behavior with those working under her was less than perfect. Her comrades often found her bossy and bullying—overly direct, blunt to a fault, even abrasive. In Milwaukee, her style was resented from the start. “I think [she] will manage to antagonize us all before she has been in the office another week,” one suffragist wrote another.
In the end, the Wisconsin campaign failed to put suffrage on the ballot, and by the time it was over, Eastman wanted out of both Milwaukee and the life she’d been living there. Her husband, she realized, was a true bourgeois and she, just as truly, a bohemian. She really didn’t want a prosperous, middle-class life, and Bennie was hell-bent on getting rich. “You see,” she wrote Max, “I can feel this deadly middle-western life with a big house and a big automobile and a comfortable home—and no chance to raise hell if I want to—closing in on me. I must get Bennie away now.” But Bennie didn’t want to get away, now or ever. The marriage was over.
If ever there was a woman determined on taking in her experience with as much honesty as possible, that woman was Crystal Eastman. But in 1916 she married again with not much more foresight than she’d shown before, this time to an Englishman named Walter Fuller, a somewhat itinerant radical with whom she had two children and lived on and off for over a decade. She loved Fuller—they were genuine comrades in radicalism—but the fearful totality with which she flung herself into one cause or another ultimately alienated him. (God knows what it did to the children.) A passion for getting the thing done exactly as she thought it should be done overtook Eastman whenever the next crisis in labor or suffrage occurred, and she became hopelessly single-minded, the extreme position being the only one she ever wanted to occupy. There are millions of marriages that have survived that kind of pressure when the obsessive is a man. But how many when it is a woman?
One of the most interesting political developments in which Eastman had a strong stake was the quarrel that broke out in the 1920s, after the vote was won, between egalitarian feminists who supported the newly hatched Equal Rights Amendment and social reformers like Lillian Wald and Jane Addams (and later Eleanor Roosevelt) who supported protective legislation for women and denounced the ERA as a danger to them rather than a boon. Eastman, of course, was an egalitarian through and through. “I am interested…in seeing that [women] are no longer classed with children and minors,” she explained. If she should be told that women couldn’t work at night, she’d pronounce the messenger an enemy at the gates. She knew that she was speaking from a privileged position—that of the white middle-class woman unthreatened by industrial dangers—but she firmly believed that to vote for equality under the law instead of protection was to vote for the grown-up future rather than the patronizing status quo.
It is painful to realize that this argument was repeated as late as the 1970s and ’80s and to some degree will be with us until the ERA becomes the law of the land. But shortly after the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment, every feminist in the country had a take on the ERA, and many of them included some very telling complaints. Eastman delivered a speech called “Now We Can Begin” in which she laid out all the issues on which equality had yet to be won, and among them was embedded one gripe that had never softened in her:
It must be womanly as well as manly to earn your own living. And it must be manly as well as womanly to know how to cook and sew and clean and take care of yourself in the ordinary exigencies of life. I need not add that the second part of this revolution will be more passionately resisted than the first. Men will not give up their privilege of helplessness without a struggle. The average man has a carefully cultivated ignorance about household matters—from what to do with the crumbs to the grocer’s telephone number—a sort of cheerful inefficiency which protects him better than the reputation for having a violent temper…. Even as a boy he was quick to see how a general reputation for being ‘no good around the house’ would serve him throughout life, and half-consciously he began to cultivate that helplessness until today it is the despair of feminist wives.
I can hear her voice as I read these words, and behind her voice I can also hear Emma Goldman’s and Rosa Luxemburg’s and Elizabeth Stanton’s and Simone de Beauvoir’s, all radical women distinguished not so much by any unusual feats of intellection as by an urgency of spirit that emerges from a love of life empowered by a passion for moral suasion: the incredible excitement of doing the right thing. After Eastman died, Freda Kirchwey, who later became the editor of The Nation, wrote, “When she spoke to people—whether it was to a small committee or a swarming crowd—hearts beat faster and nerves tightened as she talked…. She was for thousands a symbol of what the free woman might be.”
Aronson’s biography pays Crystal Eastman the enormous respect of presenting her as a woman of parts in whom we see fused the best of American leftism with the best of Christian compassion and the near best of modernist courage. For this, I applaud it. But I also must say that this is an academic biography, meaning the author feels obliged to provide extensive explanations of the social, political, and cultural atmosphere surrounding every move Eastman made. The issues, the organizations, the internecine clashes are all here in somewhat wearying detail. It’s not that it isn’t all interesting; it’s just that Eastman herself gets lost for pages (and pages!) at a time. Only rarely—and then mainly through her letters—do we glimpse the progress of her inner life, gain any insight into her conflicts, her blind spots, her fearsome drive. In short, only rarely do we feel her alive on the page. These objections notwithstanding, Aronson’s book is prodigiously researched, the writing easy on the eyes, and it deserves, without a doubt, a place on any shelf of biographies devoted to the stirring history of American radicalism.