You have to think a little before you realize they want to talk peace and get ready to fight.
– Crystal Eastman Benedict, chair of Woman’s Peace Party, in “Women Ridicule Security League,” The New York Times, June 6, 1915
The outbreak of World War I in Europe launched competing movements for “preparedness” and peace in the United States. Before 1917, the radical women of Greenwich Village primarily advocated for the latter. They were committed to the belief, in the words of historian Blanche Wiesen Cook, that “in order to have peace, you had to have economic justice, you had to have democracy … you had to have people who cared about their neighbors and the future.” Their campaigns for freedom and equality—in the workplace, in the home, and at the ballot box—would not, they believed, be advanced by the march to war.
Among the leading Village peace activists was lawyer and writer Crystal Eastman. Eastman’s brother Max edited the radical magazine The Masses, to which she contributed, and which advanced a strong anti-war position. Eastman joined marches and rallies for peace in New York that celebrated the value of internationalism, a hallmark of the suffrage movement as well as the peace movement. She also helped organize the Women’s Peace Party and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the latter of which held a conference in Belgium in 1915. Risking the dangers of a wartime voyage, American women crossed the Atlantic to join their European counterparts in urging the warring nations to call off their fight.
When the United States entered the war in 1917, radical women were split on how to respond. Some suffragists seized the opportunity to perform wartime duties and highlight their deserving status as citizens. Others, however, continued to protest. Eastman was among those who continued to fight for peace. As a lawyer, she co-founded the National Civil Liberties Bureau (the forerunner of the ACLU) to protect the rights of dissenters in the face of wartime repression.
In the video above, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Distinguished Professor of History and Women’s Studies at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and a member of the scholarly Board of the Center for Women’s History at N-YHS, discusses Eastman’s life and legacy with Alice Kessler-Harris, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor Emerita of American History at Columbia, and chair of the scholarly Board. As Professor Wiesen Cook describes, Eastman was involved in many forms of activism – including struggles for labor rights, for freedom of speech, suffrage, and reproductive justice – all of which informed her commitments to peace.
This video was filmed for “Women Have Always Worked: The U.S. Experience,” the first massive open online course in women’s history. The course, created and led by Professor Kessler-Harris, is a joint project of the New-York Historical Society and Columbia University, and is freely available to all online. For more on the Women’s Peace Movement, enjoy the introductory clip below or visit the “Women Have Always Worked” course site to see all of the available content.
– Nick Juravich, Center for Women’s History
Top banner photo: In 1914, women organized a mourning parade down Fifth Avenue with 1,500 marchers including suffragists, “twenty negro women,” nurses, “young woman socialists,” children, and international representatives. Peace Parade, August, 29 1914, New-York Historical Society Library.