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A Revolutionary Life

by Amy Aronson

Pub Date: Dec. 2nd, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-19-994873-4
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

An overdue biography of an influential suffragist, pacifist, and civil libertarian.

“God meant the whole rich world of work and play and adventure for women as well as men,” Crystal Eastman (1881-1928) said in a 1914 speech. “It is high time for us to enter into our heritage—that is my feminist faith.” The daughter of two ministers, Eastman was especially close to her mother, who served with Thomas Beecher, the half brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, at a church in upstate New York. After earning a law degree from New York University, she pursued progressive causes, including workers’ rights, suffrage, socialism, reproductive rights, and civil liberties. In the first biography of Eastman, Aronson (Journalism and Media Studies/Fordham Univ.; Taking Liberties: Early American Women’s Magazines and Their Readers, 2002, etc.) casts her subject as a journalist and intersectional activist who advocated for social justice while embarking on love affairs, two unconventional marriages, and motherhood. Despite lifelong health problems, Eastman investigated hazardous labor conditions for the Russell Sage Foundation and wrote a landmark 1910 report on that effort, Work Accidents and the Law, which led to the country’s first workers’ compensation law. She later became a prominent suffragist and co-founder of forerunners of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, often working beside trailblazers such as Jane Addams and Charlotte Perkins Gilman or with her brother, Max, with whom she co-edited the leftist monthly the Liberator. This dense and deeply researched biography  features some distracting modern clichés (Eastman “noted that her biological clock had been actively ticking” and found herself “juggling work and family”), but Aronson leaves no doubt that Eastman was an inspiring figure who deserves the renewed attention that the book should bring.

A welcome reconsideration of an underappreciated early-20th-century journalist and activist.