IntroductionCrystal Eastman’s views on feminism are remarkable when it is seen that the article in question dates to 1920. In an era when the woman’s right to vote was new, she takes this step forward into a broad and intelligent perspective. Eastman correctly understands that the vote is only the beginning of the struggle for women’s freedom, and she sensibly lays out both the obstacles to this and the ways in which it may be realized. Her argument as a whole is logical and insightful, particularly in its address of politics and their relevance to feminism. Unfortunately, the clear thinking here ignores the most fundamental issue, and only minimizes male objections as barriers to be weakened by education. While Eastman’s “Now We Can Begin” is a powerful expression of many important feminist concerns, the author’s failure to address the nature of patriarchal society itself undermines her force.
Before the weakness in Eastman’s thinking may be understood, it is necessary to first trace the logic and ethics she uses to build her case, and because these same strategies ultimately lead to the failure of her ideas. As noted, the logic is very clear. It is rational that most women maintained “proper” behaviors while fighting for the vote because, as the author realizes, no important change could occur without this. Then, and with real insight, Eastman affirms that, if feminism is political in a sense, it has agendas going far beyond socialism or other movements promoting equality, and because a woman’s position in the world is so inherently different than a man’s. The author then turns to the ethics behind women’s oppression, as both poor and wealthy women are still obligated to run the household and care for the children, responsibilities men do not usually share. For Eastman, the answer lies in two responses: educating children to change norms of masculinity and feminine behavior, and voluntary motherhood as a priority: “Women are to have children when they want them, that’s the first thing.” Each argument she makes is then based on sound ethical principles and reasonable perspectives on how to create change for the better.
It is then all the more disappointing that a feminist and writer like Eastman, so rational and principled, should “circle around” the fundamental obstacle to women’s equality. She is correct when she notes that communist leaders will usually expect women to be subservient in the home, and she uses this point to reinforce how feminism goes beyond political change. What is important here, however, is that the revolutionary leader and the traditionally republican leader share the same view of women, which goes to how all men are united in denying women real freedom. More exactly, it is as though Eastman sees the socialist thinking as coming nearer to understanding feminism because it should. This ignores how even political differences at the highest levels are still masculine realities, and this core factor of masculine belief is what she chooses to neglect. No matter how it has developed, the vast majority of men are united in denying freedom to women. Eastman is then right in pointing out the mistake of a woman’s trusting to radical politics, but she stops short of recognizing exactly why this is so.
The more basic failure of logic is then clear everywhere in her argument. Eastman insists, for example, that boys must be raised to see housework as “manly” but she does not explain how this can happen in a culture based on the opposite. She realizes that only choice will give women true equality, but she sets aside the improbability of this happening because men, deeply convinced of the rightness of a patriarchy, still hold the power and would not likely allow their children to be taught conflicting ideas. Eastman does acknowledge the power of the challenge she argues for: “Men will not give up their privilege of helplessness without a struggle.” The issue, nonetheless, is that she assumes men will still surrender this privilege and, ethics and the rightness of gender equality aside, she does not address that men have no incentive to change what works so well for them. It is actually ironic that Eastman, so dedicated to logic, refuses to focus on the most important reality of her subject, which is male dominance as self-perpetuating because men, holding power, universally hold to a shared agenda.
Eastman’s article is important as an early example of feminist thinking and a broad understanding of crucial issues. It is then all the more unfortunate that she fails to consider and discuss how ideas of masculinity dictate reality, and how deeply embedded these are in societies. The weakness in the thinking then outweighs the reason, and because it is irrational to believe that men will surrender the power that supports their lives and higher status. Crystal Eastman’s “Now We Can Begin” is a powerful argument for many important feminist concerns, but the author’s failure to recognize the basic nature of patriarchal society itself undermines her force.
- Eastman, Crystal. “Now We Can Begin.” 2015. Web. 24 Dec. 2015.