Crystal Eastman was born in Marlborough, Massachusetts, on 25th June, 1881. Both her parents, Samuel Eastman and Annis Ford, were church ministers. Her brother, Max Eastman, was born two years later. He later wrote: "She was beautiful and socially disarming, and yet inwardly a mighty girl, as we named her in the bosom of the family... The qualities in Crystal that I most rejoiced in were her ruthless sincerity and logic; the inexhaustible fountain of understanding love that made these qualities bearable; a supervening humor.. a gift of entering into the problems of other people as though she had no problems of her own - a veritable genius for friendship and wise counsel; and withal a passionate joy in the adventure of living her own life."
In 1889 her mother was one of the first women to be ordained as a minister. Crystal recalled: "When my mother preached we hated to miss it. There was never a moment of anxiety or concern; she had that secret of perfect platform ease which takes all strain out of the audience. Her voice was music; she spoke simply, without effort, almost without gestures, standing very still. And what she said seemed to come straight from her heart to yours. Her sermons grew out other own moral and spiritual struggles. For she had a stormy, troubled soul, capable of black cruelty and then again of the deepest generosities. She was humble, honest, striving, always beginning again to try to be good."
Crystal Eastman graduated from Vassar College in 1903. She also obtained a degree in sociology at Columbia University (1904) and at New York City University Law School (1907). Claude McKay met her during this period: "The moment I saw her and heard her voice I liked Crystal Eastman. I think she was the most beautiful white woman I ever knew. She was of the heavy or solid type of female, and her beauty was not so much other features... but in her magnificent presence. Her form was something after the pattern of a splendid draft horse and she had a way of holding her head like a large bird poised m a listening attitude."
Eastman settled in Greenwich Village and joined a community of feminists that included Inez Milholland, Mary Heaton Vorse, Doris Stevens, Susan Glaspell, Neith Boyce, Madeleine Doty, and Ida Rauth. In 1907 Paul U. Kellogg, editor of the social work magazine, Charities and the Commons, hired her to investigate labour conditions for the Russell Sage Foundation's Pittsburgh Survey. Over the next year Eastman carried out the first in-depth sociological investigation of industrial accidents ever undertaken. Other members of the team included Lewis Hine, Elizabeth Beardsley Butler, John R. Commons, John A. Fitch and Joseph Stella.
In June 1909 Charles E. Hughes, the Governor of New York, appointed Eastman to become the first woman member of the Employer's Liability Commission. In this role she drafted New York State's first worker's compensation law and in 1910 she published her book Work Accidents and the Law.
Eastman married Wallace Benedict in 1911. The couple moved to Milwaukee but the marriage was not a success and ended in divorce. Eastman reputation as a political campaigner grew and in 1913 she became investigating attorney for the U.S.Commission on Industrial Relations. Later that year Eastman was a delegate to the Seventh Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Budapest. During the conference Eastman met Aletta Jacobs (Holland), Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (England) and Rosika Schwimmer (Hungary).
In 1913 Eastman joined with Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Mabel Vernon, Olympia Brown, Mary Ritter Beard, Belle LaFollette, Doris Stevens, Helen Keller, Maria Montessori and Dorothy Day to form the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage (CUWS) and attempted to introduce the militant methods used by the Women's Social and Political Union in Britain. This included organizing huge demonstrations and the daily picketing of the White House. Over the next couple of years the police arrested nearly 500 women for loitering and 168 were jailed for "obstructing traffic".
As a pacifist Eastman was a strong opponent of the First World War. Soon after the outbreak of the conflict Eastman, Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, Paul U. Kellogg and Oswald Garrison Villard established the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM). Wald became the AUAM's president and Eastman its executive director. Over the next couple of years the AUAM lobbied against America's possible involvement in the war. It also campaigned against conscription, the arms trade and American imperialism in Latin America and the Caribbean.
On the 10th January, 1915, Eastman joined over 3,000 women at a meeting in the ballroom of the New Willard Hotel in Washington and formed the Woman's Peace Party. Jane Addams was elected chairman and other women involved in the organization included Mary McDowell, Florence Kelley, Alice Hamilton, Anna Howard Shaw, Belle La Follette, Fanny Garrison Villard, Emily Balch, Jeanette Rankin, Lillian Wald, Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Mary Heaton Vorse, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Carrie Chapman Catt, Freda Kirchwey, Emily Bach, and Sophonisba Breckinridge.
In 1916, Eastman married British poet and fellow anti-war activist, Walter Fuller. In the same year, she invited her friend Roger Baldwin to run the American Union Against Militarism office while she took a brief leave to give birth to her first child. The following year Eastman joined Baldwin, Norman Thomas, Albert DeSilver and Clarence Darrow to establish the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB).
Crystal worked with her brother, Max Eastman, on the radical journal The Masses. After it was closed down by the authorities because of its opposition to American involvement in the First World War, they joined with Art Young and Floyd Dell to establish the The Liberator. In the first edition it was stated: "The Liberator will be owned and published by its editors, who will be free in its pages to say what they truly think. It will fight in the struggle of labor. It will fight for the ownership and control of industry by the workers, and will present vivid and accurate news of the labor and socialist movements in all parts of the world." The journal published information about socialist movements throughout the world and was the first to break the news that the Allies had invaded Russia.
After the war Woodrow Wilson appointed A. Mitchell Palmer as his attorney general. Worried by the revolution that had taken place in Russia, Palmer became convinced that Communist agents were planning to overthrow the American government. Palmer recruited John Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and together they used the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to launch a campaign against radicals and left-wing organizations.
A. Mitchell Palmer claimed that Communist agents from Russia were planning to overthrow the American government. On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested in what became known as the Palmer Raids. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects were held without trial for a long time. The vast majority were eventually released but Emma Goldman and 247 other people, were deported to Russia.
In January, 1920, another 6,000 were arrested and held without trial. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects, many of them members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), continued to be held without trial. When Palmer announced that the communist revolution was likely to take place on 1st May, mass panic took place. In New York, five elected Socialists were expelled from the legislature.
Concerned by these events Eastman joined with Roger Baldwin, Norman Thomas, Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Lillian Wald, Felix Frankfurter, Oswald Garrison Villard, Paul Kellogg, Clarence Darrow, John Dewey, Charles Beard, Abraham Muste, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Upton Sinclair to form the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The ACTU's main concern was to defend the civil rights that were guaranteed in state and federal constitutions. This included:
(1) First Amendment rights: These include freedom of speech, association and assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, including the strict separation between church and state.
(2) Equal protection of the law: The right to equal treatment regardless of race, sex, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, age, physical handicap, or other such classification.
(3) Due process of law: The right to be treated fairly when facing criminal charges or other serious accusations that can result in such penalties as loss of employment, exclusion from school, denial of housing, or cut-off of benefits.
(4) The right of privacy and autonomy which cannot be penetrated by the government or by other institutions, like employers, with substantial influence over the individual's rights.
In December 1920, Crystal Eastman wrote in The Liberator: "Many feminists are socialists, many are communists, not a few are active leaders in these movements. But the true feminist, no matter how far to the left she may be in the revolutionary movement, sees the woman's battle as distinct in its objects and different in its methods from the workers' battle for industrial freedom. She knows, of course, that the vast majority of women as well as men are without property, and are of necessity bread and butter slaves under a system of society which allows the very sources of life to be privately owned by a few, and she counts herself a loyal soldier in the working-class army that is marching to overthrow that system. But as a feminist she also knows that the whole of woman's slavery is not summed up in the profit system, nor her complete emancipation assured by the downfall of capitalism.
In 1922 The Liberator was taken over by Robert Minor and the Communist Party. Eastman now wrote for The Nation and Equal Rights, a journal established by Alice Paul. Blacklisted for her left-wing political opinions and unable to find work, Eastman and her husband Walter Fuller moved to London. While in England she worked fot the Daily Herald and Time and Tide, a feminist journal established by Lady Margaret Rhondda. She also took part in the campaign to get votes for women on the same terms as men.
Walter Fuller died of a stroke in September 1927. Eastman returned home but was in poor health and died of a brain hemorrhage on 8th July, 1928. An obituary by Freda Kirchwey in The Nation pointed out that: "In her short life Crystal Eastman brushed against many other lives, and wherever she moved she carried with her the breath of courage and a contagious belief in the coming triumph of freedom and decent human relations. These were her religion. Her strength, her beauty, her vitality and enthusiasm, her rich and compelling personality - these she threw with reckless vigor into every cause that promised a finer life to the world." As another friend wrote at the time: "She was for thousands a symbol of what the free woman might be."