Homage to a Forgotten Revolutionary

Dr. Amy Beth Aronson, a Fordham University professor of journalism and media studies, is in the process of publishing a biography about suffragist Crystal Eastman entitled, The Forgotten Revolutionary.

Having acquired her Bachelor of Arts in English literature from Princeton University and a Doctor of Philosophy in American Literature and Culture Studies from Columbia University, Aronson has been an editor for several notable magazines, including Working Woman and Steinem’s Ms. Magazine. She has free-lanced for BusinessWeek, Global Journalist and the Boston Globe. She is currently an editor of an international quarterly magazine, Media History.

Her research tends to focus on American magazines and periodical literature in conjunction with gender representations of femininity and masculinity as seen in her work Taking Liberties, a history of American women’s magazines. She additionally co-authored the book Sociology Now with her husband, Michael Kimmel, with whom she has also completed a two-volume Encyclopedia of Masculinities. Aronson was the recipient of Best Article of the Year Award from the American Journalism Historians Association in 2014 for her article “Everything Old is New Again: How The ‘New’ User Generated Magazine Takes Us Back to the Future.”

Aronson is writing a cultural biography about twentieth-century feminist and attorney Crystal Eastman, a nonconformist journalist, media activist, and founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Aronson’s biography on Eastman will be published in 2017 by Oxford University Press.

Aronson discovered Eastman’s writings at Princeton University while working on research for her dissertation proposal. Similar to Aronson, Eastman was a working mother who was a keen advocate for feminism, civil rights, free speech, and peace. Eastman’s voice and ideas on gender and feminism inspired Aronson, and she became one of Aronson’s role models.

Wanting to do her justice, Aronson left her job in the magazine world to devote her time to writing a biography of Eastman: “The fact that a woman like that had all but disappeared from history,” Aronson said, “a woman with her importance in her lifetime and institutional legacy after she was gone, a woman with so much to say to contemporary readers more than half a century after her death, just kind of haunted me.” Aronson wanted to find out more about Eastman, and so she delved into “who [Eastman] was, what else she thought about and believed in.”

The significance of studying the reason why women’s accomplishments disappear from public memory speaks to the importance of the theme of Aronson’s book, The Forgotten Revolutionary. Aronson questions the intersection of sexism and hegemony of the white male patriarchy in history as she claims that she “wanted to understand the particularities—this woman’s life and loss—and the dynamics of relationships with some specificity as to perhaps nourish, and in some small way meditate on other women’s lives, both missing and misunderstood.”

According to Aronson, Crystal Eastman contributed to society in a multitude of ways. “Eastman was a labor lawyer, suffragist, peace activist, radical publisher and a co-founder of the ACLU,” Aronson said.  “She drafted the nation’s first serious workers’ compensation law; she co-founded the National Woman’s Party, and later co-authored the Equal Rights Amendment; she co-founded the Woman’s Peace Party—today the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).” Additionally, Eastman was a co-publisher of the paper of record of the post-war American Left, The Liberator.

“Eastman remained a committed feminist all of her life,” Aronson said. “It was perhaps the foundation, or font, of her politics.” Her work extended beyond the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, as “she pushed for a big, broad-based vision of feminism once women had won the vote, and tried to link women’s liberation to an array of other legal and political changes connected to equality.” Aronson added that Eastman understood that the foundations of America had to be altered to include its entire people, and that the discrimination of its inhabitants was rooted deep in America’s institutions.  

The human rights causes that meant the most to Eastman pertained to the intersectional identities of those oppressed by American institutions. Intersectionality is the interconnected nature of socially constructed classifications such as gender, race and class as they apply to a given group, seen as an interdependent system of discrimination. Aronson states, “Eastman was an intersectional activist—more than three-quarters of a century before the term was coined (in the early 1990s).” Eastman’s innovative ideas enabled her to understand that we cannot solve one kind of social inequality without solving the others—a major argument made by reformers today. This is why, according to Aronson, Eastman dedicated her life to bridging multiple social movements “in pursuit of a broad emancipatory vision.”

Aronson also suggested that Eastman, like many women who challenged American institutions in the late nineteenth century, faced resistance due to her gender and other factors “Eastman was a radical in virtually everything she did, and met with resistance from outside the social organizations and movements with which she was involved and also, to some extent, from within them,” Aronson said. Her thoughts on intersectionality challenged boundaries, making her “something of a gadfly,” even by the organizations she belonged to and people she tried to help.

Nevertheless, Eastman did find the support of some progressive politicians.  In particular, Governor Charles Evan Hughes appointed her to head a New York social welfare commission, for which she drafted Employer’s Liability; A Criticism Based on Facts.

According to Aronson’s research, Eastman had a volatile personality. She fought radically for what she believed in and did not allow challenges to deter her. Aronson suggests that Eastman’s spirit keeps her engaged in her research, as Eastman was the kind of woman to recognize defeat as part of her future success.

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