Today In History: Crystal Eastman Points the Way Towards the ERA

On December 1, 2020

100 years ago today, on December 1, 1920 Crystal Eastman–a leader in the National Woman’s Party–delivered a speech designed to ensure that suffrage was not the end of the woman’s movement. The speech, fittingly titled “Now We Can Begin” presents the passing of the nineteenth amendment as a necessary precursor to the genuine work achieving gender equality.

A socialist herself, Eastman was equally willing to critique communists and capitalists when it came to the real issue of woman’s freedom, which she presumed requires control of one’s personal property and economic destiny. Before women could be considered truly free, she argued, they must be fully equal with men in this important realm of life. Eastman was particularly interested in working conditions and questions of pay equity, arguing that these practical matters needed to be resolved before women would experience genuine equality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some credit her with being Alice Paul’s coauthor on the Equal Rights Amendment (1923).

Now We Can Begin, Crystal Eastman, December 1, 1920

Crystal Eastman, 1923, Library of Congress,

Most women will agree that August 23, the day when the Tennessee legislature finally enacted the federal suffrage amendment, is a day to begin with, not a day to end with. Men are saying perhaps, “Thank God, this everlasting woman’s fight is over!” But women, if I know them, are saying, “Now at last we can begin.” In fighting for the right to vote most women have tried to be either noncommittal or thoroughly respectable on every other subject. Now they can say what they are really after; and what they are after, in common with all the rest of the struggling world, is freedom.

Freedom is a large word.

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.

Woman’s freedom, in the feminist sense, can be fought for and conceivably won before the gates open into industrial democracy. On the other hand, woman’s freedom, in the feminist sense, is not inherent in the communist ideal. All feminists are familiar with the revolutionary leader who “can’t see” the woman’s movement. “What’s the matter with the women? My wife’s all right,” he says. And his wife, one usually finds, is raising his children in a Bronx flat or a dreary suburb, to which he returns occasionally for food and sleep when all possible excitement and stimulus have been wrung from the fight. If we should graduate into communism tomorrow this man’s attitude to his wife would not be changed. The proletarian dictatorship may or may not free women. We must begin now to enlighten the future dictators.

What, then, is “the matter with women”? What is the problem of women’s freedom? It seems to me to be this: how to arrange the world so that women can be human beings, with a chance to exercise their infinitely varied gifts in infinitely varied ways, instead of being destined by the accident of their sex to one field of activity—housework and child-raising. And second, if and when they choose housework and child-raising, to have that occupation recognized by the world as work, requiring a definite economic reward and not merely entitling the performer to be dependent on some man.

This is not the whole of feminism, of course, but it is enough to begin with. “Oh, don’t begin with economics,” my friends often protest, “Woman does not live by bread alone. What she needs first of all is a free soul.” And I can agree that women will never be great until they achieve a certain emotional freedom, a strong healthy egotism, and some unpersonal sources of joy—that in this inner sense we cannot make woman free by changing her economic status. What we can do, however, is to create conditions of outward freedom in which a free woman’s soul can be born and grow. It is these outward conditions with which an organized feminist movement must concern itself.

Read the rest of the speech in our document library.


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