Thursday, July 23, 2020

Crystal Eastman

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Coming across a name twice in one week is a good sign to dig a little deeper, and this is how I was introduced to Crystal Eastman. Turns out not only did this woman have connections to Elmira, women’s suffrage and Mark Twain, she was among the first American women to receive a law degree. She was the first woman appointed by a New York Governor to a state legal commission dealing with employment - a group she was later elected to lead – and she was co-founder of both the National Women’s Peace Party and the American Civil Liberties Union (commonly known as the ACLU). Amazingly, she accomplished all of this before her untimely death at the age of 48.

Crystal Eastman

Crystal Eastman was born in 1881, the second of four children to Samuel Eastman and Annis Ford Eastman. The Eastmans had married after meeting as students at Oberlin College. Samuel was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, and his first assignment was to Canandaigua’s First Congregational Church.

Samuel and Annis Eastman

Samuel Eastman had served in the Civil War, and had suffered from terrible pneumonia. His health went on to bother him throughout his life. Soon health issues forced him to resign his Canandaigua ministry, and his wife Annis took up teaching to raise money for the growing family. They had four children. Annis soon discovered a talent for speaking and was asked and accepted offers to preach at various local churches. She became an early feminist and popular speaker. Notable speeches she gave were before the Congress of Women and the National Council of Women of the United States.

In 1892, Annis became the first woman Congregational minister, and was ordained by a council headed by the Reverend Thomas K. Beecher of Elmira. The Eastmans and Beechers became lifelong friends and colleagues. When Reverend Beecher died in 1900, both Eastmans were appointed to take his place and they moved their family from Canandaigua to Elmira.

Revs. Thomas K. Beecher, Annis and Samuel Eastman

Other members of the progressive congregation included Samuel L. -also known as Mark Twain - and Livy Clemens. They knew the Eastmans so well that when Twain died, Reverend Annis Ford Eastman was asked to give the eulogy at his funeral. She wrote the eulogy, but her failing health prevented her from delivering it. Her husband spoke on her behalf.

The Eastman’s oldest child had died early from scarlet fever. Now there were three children and Crystal was their only daughter. She left Elmira to study at Vassar College, with plans to pursue advanced studies in NYC while her brother Max finished up at Williams College. 

Vassar College

The family’s financial plans required her to compromise. Her parents decided Crystal would pursue her master’s degree in sociology from Columbia, while Max took a year off. Crystal would then return to Elmira and work while Max finished his studies. Everyone agreed, and upon completing graduate school, Crystal returned to Elmira to teach high school English and history for two years.

In 1906, Crystal returned to New York City to enroll in law school at New York University. The program had recently began to admit women students, and she earned her degree in 1907. She was particularly interested in labor issues and worked on a project called the Pittsburgh Survey. This was an in-depth look at workplace injuries, employment, and unemployment issues. Her scholarship on the project brought her to the attention of the NY Governor. Governor Hughes appointed her to the New York State Commission of Employee’s Liability and Causes of Industrial Accidents, Unemployment and Lack of Farm Labor. Crystal became the first woman appointed to any state level commission in New York, and went on to be the elected Secretary of the commission. 

Following in her mother's footsteps, Crystal became active in the suffrage movement. Ironically her first contribution to the cause was to help her brother Max establish the Men's League for Women's Suffrage, and important organization that fought alongside and boosted women's rights.

Crystal married Wallace Benedict and they left New York for Milwaukee, his hometown. In Wisconsin, she campaigned for suffrage issues which went on to be soundly defeated. Within the year, she moved back alone to NYC. The couple divorced two years later.

By this time, World War I was looming. Crystal, along with other prominent activists, turned their attention away from women getting the vote to working on Peace and anti-Militarism campaigns. Concerned about the state of civil liberties for all citizens, she co-founded the National Woman’s Peace Party to defend free speech during wartime. Her advocacy work gained her international experience, and she traveled and lectured throughout Europe. She worked closely with prominent social reformers, activists and radicals of the day, including Walter Fuller who became her second husband. Walter was an Englishman, poet, anti-war activist, intellectual and editor, and together they had two children.

In 1920, when the US Government began to suppress free speech and freedom of the press, Crystal co-founded the National Civil Liberties Bureau later known as the American Civil Liberties Union. This was her most significant legacy.

Her work to protect citizens’ civil rights targeted her, and she and her husband were blacklisted by the government. Unable to find work, they fled the country to work in London, England.

In 1927, Walter had a stroke and died. Crystal returned to the US only to die six months later from inflammation of the kidneys. She was 48 years old. Crystal Eastman is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Canandaigua, NY.

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