Monday, January 28, 2013

Crystal Eastman, 1: Brains and Beauty


      Crystal Eastman was a pioneering feminist, an influential labor lawyer, a founder of the Woman’s Peace Party and the American Civil Liberties Union, a co-founder and co-editor of The Liberator, and one of the most beloved women of her generation.
Ironically, despite her distinguished record of accomplishments, Crystal Eastman is mostly remembered as Max Eastman’s older sister.
She was born in MarlboroughMass., in 1881. Her parents, Samuel and Annis Ford Eastman; were ministers. Her father had caught pneumonia while on active duty during the Civil War and suffered from ill health for many years afterward, causing the burden of family support to be assumed by his wife.
At a time when women’s place was in the home, Annis Ford had defied her father and had gone to Oberlin College in Ohio to study theology, where she met her husband. When illness caused her husband to give up his profession in ElmiraN.Y., Annis became the first woman in the state to be ordained a Congregational minister. Even after Samuel resumed preaching, his wife’s career was more successful than his.

Role Models
      Crystal Eastman found role models in both her mother and father. "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.”
Crystal found strong support for her latent feminism in her father. “When I insisted that the boys must make their beds if I had to make mine, my father stood by me. When I said that if there was dishwashing to be done they should take their turn, he stood by me. And when I declared that there was no such thing in our family as boys’ work and girls’ work, and that I must be allowed to do my share of wood-chopping and outdoor chores, he took me seriously and let me try.”
“Once when I was twelve and very tall, a deputation of ladies from her church called on my mother and gently suggested that my skirts ought to be longer. My mother, who was not without consciousness of the neighbors' opinions, thought she must do something. But my father said, ‘No, let her wear them short. She likes to run, and she can't run so well in long skirts.’”
“A few years later it was a question of bathing suits. In our summer community I was a ringleader in the rebellion against skirts and stockings for swimming. On one hot Sunday morning the other fathers waited on my father and asked him to use his influence with me. I don't know what he said to them but he never said a word to me. He was, I know, startled and embarrassed to see his only daughter in a man's bathing suit with bare brown legs for all the world to see. I think it shocked him to his dying day. But he himself had been a swimmer; he knew he would not want to swim in a skirt and stockings. Why then should I?”
 Her mother started a series of summer “symposiums” at their home in Elmira. Once a week, neighborhood mothers and children “and any fathers who happened to be around” would gather on the Eastman’s front porch to listen to a paper and then discuss it. Crystal’s contribution was titled “Woman.”
“The trouble with women,” Crystal wrote, “is that they have no impersonal interests. They must have work of their own, first because no one who has to depend on another person for his living is really grown up, and, second, because the only way to be happy is to have an absorbing interest in life which is not bound up with any particular person. Children can die or grow up, husbands can leave you. No woman who allows her husband and children to absorb her whole time and interest is safe against disaster.”
The author of these words was 15 years old at the time.
“The moment I saw her and heard her voice I liked Crystal Eastman,” said Claude McKay, black poet and seminal figure in the Harlem Renaissance, in his autobiography. “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 of her features but in her magnificent presence.”
Crystal was almost six feet tall, athletic and vigorous. One of the first women in the country to bob her hair, she wore short skirts at work, pointing out that this style was not only “comfortable, hygienic, and becoming, but a step in the direction of freedom, for it gave women freer use of their legs than they had known for hundreds of years. Incidentally, it gave them back use of the left-hand which in the days of trailing skirts have always been used for holding the ugly things up out of the dust and dirt.”
She added, “Surely the best thing about bobbed hair is the new sense of freedom it brings to the wearer. What the short skirt has done for women’s legs, short hair is doing for their heads. And outside of musical comedy, a woman’s head is ever more important than her legs.”

Labor Lawyer
      After graduating from Vassar College in 1903, Crystal earned a Master's degree in sociology from Columbia University and was second in the class of 1907 at New York University's School of Law, specializing in labor law. 
      In 1907, Paul U. Kellogg, editor of social work magazine Charities and the Commons, hired her to investigate labor conditions for the Russell Sage Foundation's Pittsburgh Survey. She moved to Pittsburgh and over the next year conducted the first comprehensive sociological investigation of industrial accidents ever undertaken. Her pioneering 1910 report on worker safety in PittsburghWork Accidents and the Law, caused New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes to name her the first and only woman among the 14 members of the Commission on Employer's Liability and Causes of Industrial Accidents. 
      On this commission, Crystal Eastman drafted the state’s (and the nation's) first workers' compensation law.Existing industrial safety legislation--called “protective” legislation by male legislators responding to what they saw as the “special” needs of women--regulated working conditions, but only for women. 
      “Feminism has entered upon a new phase,” Crystal wrote. “No longer content with asking for their rights, women have begun to question their privileges. They have begun to examine, with some shrewdness, the whole body of more or less benevolent legislation which has been gradually built up during the last half-century for the ’protection’ of women in industry.” 
      Instead, she advocated the objectives of British feminist groups, which was legislation for the protection of the worker based not upon sex but upon the nature of the work.

      Less than a month before her 30th birthday, in May of 1911, Crystal surprised her friends by marrying Wallace Benedict, a good-looking insurance agent, and moving to Milwaukee, even though it meant letting her husband’s career choice take precedence in the relationship. 
      Her friends felt that Benedict was a poor choice as a husband: He had the wrong occupation, lacked a social conscience and his home was far from New YorkCrystal made up for these shortcomings the following year by managing the unsuccessful fight for women's suffrage in Wisconsin, which was defeated by the big breweries and liquor interests.
      The marriage lasted only two unhappy years before Crystal returned to New York and filed for divorce--but refused alimony, scorning the practice as a woman's admission that she could not take care of herself.For two years after divorcing Benedict, Crystal led the suffrage movement in New York, but she had no illusion that gaining the vote for women would bring true equality. 
      “Today when there is no longer a single, simple aim and a solidarity barrier to break down,” she wrote, “there are a hundred difficult questions of civil law, problems of education, of moral and social custom to be solved before women can come wholly into their inheritance of freedom.”
      Much work still lay ahead for Crystal Eastman before women would achieve a measure of equality.

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