“Now We Can Begin”: Women and Their Vote Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in August 1920, prohibited denying the vote to any US citizen on the basis of sex; it thus represented the successful culmination of the suffrage movement in the United States. Immediately following its passage, many feminists, including Socialist lawyer and peace activist Crystal Eastman, turned their attention to the future, hoping to use the momentum gained by the suffrage movement to bring about further practical reforms for women. In this article, published in the radical magazine The Liberator, Eastman argued that earning the right to vote was just the beginning of the fight for freedom for women. She believed in economic freedom for women and a reinvention of traditional gender roles, not just a freedom of consciousness. An important aspect of Eastman’s philosophy was her separation of the women’s movement from the worker’s movement. Though a committed Socialist, she understood that economic equality for women was not always part of the language of the labor movement. She advocated access to education, birth control, economic support for motherhood, and an equal division of domestic duties. In her article, Eastman sought to provide new direction for women’s activism after the fight for suffrage had ended.

Summary Overview

The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in August 1920, prohibited denying the vote to any US citizen on the basis of sex; it thus represented the successful culmination of the suffrage movement in the United States. Immediately following its passage, many feminists, including Socialist lawyer and peace activist Crystal Eastman, turned their attention to the future, hoping to use the momentum gained by the suffrage movement to bring about further practical reforms for women. In this article, published in the radical magazine The Liberator, Eastman argued that earning the right to vote was just the beginning of the fight for freedom for women. She believed in economic freedom for women and a reinvention of traditional gender roles, not just a freedom of consciousness. An important aspect of Eastman’s philosophy was her separation of the women’s movement from the worker’s movement. Though a committed Socialist, she understood that economic equality for women was not always part of the language of the labor movement. She advocated access to education, birth control, economic support for motherhood, and an equal division of domestic duties. In her article, Eastman sought to provide new direction for women’s activism after the fight for suffrage had ended.

Defining Moment

The first large-scale gathering for women’s rights took place in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. The resulting Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments demanded that women be given “immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.” The first decades of the women’s movement focused not only on achieving the vote, but also on temperance and the abolition of slavery. However, the issue of suffrage languished in the decades before the Civil War. After the war, women’s rights groups fought for suffrage to be included in the amendments that enfranchised black men; however, these bills not only failed to include women, the Fourteenth Amendment specifically included gendered language meant to protect adult male citizens, regardless of race.

After several unsuccessful legal challenges to existing amendments, in 1878, suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony drafted and submitted to Congress a women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution. Congress rejected the amendment. However, the cause of women’s suffrage gained momentum in the Progressive Era, a period of social and political reform during the first decades of the twentieth century. Women joined peace, labor, and temperance organizations, but realized that true political change could come only when women had political power; thus, a renewed push for suffrage began.

Two organizations headed the suffrage campaign. The National American Woman Suffrage Association–a moderate organization with both broad appeal and millions of members–pursued the vote in individual states while lobbying politicians and urging a constitutional amendment. The National Woman’s Party took a more militant approach. For example, they picketed with signs that compared the US government to that of the German ruler Kaiser Wilhelm II, and members went on hunger strikes when arrested. The combined efforts of these organizations finally persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to publically support women’s suffrage in 1918; the House of Representatives voted to approve the Nineteenth Amendment, but the Senate rejected it. Finally, in June 1919, Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment, and it returned to the states for ratification. In August 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the amendment, providing enough state support for the Nineteenth Amendment to become law.

Many of the women who fought for suffrage, including Eastman, were also involved in other social and economic reform movements. A distinct Socialist-feminist faction developed within the labor movement that advocated for gender equality in the context of class struggle and addressed the hypocrisy of labor leaders, who fought for justice and equality while their wives and daughters had limited opportunities for education and employment. Radical feminist reformers sought to use the newly gained vote to increase the opportunities available to women, from access to birth control to increased property rights and economic equality.

Author Biography

Crystal Eastman was born in 1881 in Massachusetts, the daughter of two Congregational ministers (her mother was one of the first women to be ordained in a Congregational church in the United States). Eastman’s parents moved the family to New York, where they were part of a progressive intellectual circle that included Mark Twain. Her brother, Max Eastman, became a prominent social and political activist. She graduated from Vassar College in 1903, earned an MA in sociology from Columbia University in 1904, and received her law degree from New York University in 1907. She became an important campaigner for the improvement of industrial working conditions. Her 1910 report, Work Accidents and the Law, prompted the first workers’ compensation law, and she worked as an investigating attorney for the US Commission on Industrial Relations. She was also a committed peace activist and feminist, and in 1917, she and others established the National Civil Liberties Bureau (which became the American Civil Liberties Union) to defend pacifists and dissenters during World War I. She and her brother founded and edited the radical journal The Liberator (a different publication from the nineteenth-century abolitionist newspaper of the same name). She was one of the few Socialists to support the 1923 Equal Rights Amendment and worked in the 1920s for a variety of radical publications. She died in 1928 in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Document Analysis

Eastman acknowledges that the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment represents the beginning of real reforms for women, but is not an end in itself. Many women had put aside other activist goals in the struggle for the vote, trying to be “non-committal or thoroughly respectable” about other feminist agenda items, so as not to jeopardize the vote. With suffrage a reality, Eastman says, “now at last we can begin.”

In Eastman’s view, the fight for women’s freedom is most immediately the fight for economic equality and opportunity. She acknowledges that, while women should support the “working-class army,” feminists must accept that women’s rights activism is “distinct in its objects and different in its methods from the workers’ battle for industrial freedom.” An end to capitalism would not necessarily liberate women, who are not treated as equals even in radical labor movements. Eastman advocates for a continued struggle against capitalism, while enlightening and educating the “proletarian dictatorship.” Women, like men, must be allowed and encouraged to use 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.” If women choose to manage a house and raise children, that work should be economically independent and rewarding and not require dependence on a man. Eastman believes that inner freedom must first have the “conditions of outward freedom in which a free woman’s soul can be born and grow.” The feminist movement should concern itself with creating these conditions, she says, not worrying about women’s emotional and spiritual lives.

Eastman’s essay presents a road map for achieving economic freedom for women. Women must have equal access to professional training and employment and equal pay. Men and women must be expected to be equally comfortable in the professional world and the domestic one. Men’s “carefully cultivated ignorance about household matters” must change. Eastman devotes much of her argument to the idea that working women engage in double the work of men because those who choose to work also remain primarily responsible for running a household. She promotes the idea of “feminist sons”–men who assume an equal share of responsibility for home life.

Feminism and motherhood are not incompatible, Eastman argues. Women must be given the tools to bear and raise children while achieving economic independence. Birth control is the single most important element of “freedom of occupational choice.” With access to birth control, women can choose when to become mothers and which years of their lives to devote to that occupation, which must also be valued through a “motherhood endowment,” an “adequate economic reward” for women who choose motherhood as an occupation. With educational and economic freedom assured, a woman could then “consider whether she has a soul.”

Essential Themes

Eastman argues that economic freedom was the natural goal for the women’s movement, once the right to vote had been won. She feels that all other freedoms sprung from this, and she also acknowledges that Socialists and Communists without a specific feminist agenda might not advocate for women’s educational and occupational choice. Because of women’s traditional domestic and social roles, women’s economic opportunities have been limited, Eastman argues. Men have abdicated responsibility for all elements of home life, leaving women to perform domestic duties. She says that the keys to achieving liberation are training men to be equal partners in domestic life, allowing women to control their fertility, recognizing motherhood as a viable career choice and providing financial support for such, and granting access to education.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Crystal Eastman.” American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU, 12 Mar. 2002. Web. 5 May 2014.
  • Dubois, E. C. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848–1869. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978. Print.
  • Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge: Belknap, 1996. Print.
  • “Reforming Their World: Women in the Progressive Era.” National Women’s History Museum. NWHM, n.d. Web. 5 May 2014.
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