Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions

Interesting and well-researched portrait of radical doctor/abortionist/suffragist/leftist Marie Equi, born 1872 in New Bedford, MA to immigrant parents (Italian dad, Irish mom). Michael Helquist took on the challenge of having to recreate Equi’s life “given the loss of her journals, personal papers, and memorabilia, discarded after her death.” He notes that historians frequently encounter this difficulty “in researching women’s lives at a time when their experiences and contributions were less valued.” Instead, he relied on some recently uncovered oral histories conducted in Portland in the 1980s along with court records, most notably the records from Equi’s federal court trial. J.Edgar Hoover also requested that all of her letters from San Quentin be monitored, so we have copies of those from the final four months of her stay.

With such resources, Helquist managed to paint a fairly comprehensive picture of Equi by filling in a lot of the blanks with blanket statements about life during those times, the prevalence of doctors providing abortions, other accounts of IWW/Wobbly activities. Equi crosses paths with several of the leading women of the times and of the movement, including a friendship with Margaret Sanger.

At a high level, Equi was an independent woman who never finished high school, headed west to help her girlfriend/companion settle her homestead claim in Oregon, studied medicine, lived in San Francisco before settling in Portland, helped with medical support after the 1906 earthquake, had a long-term relationship with Harriet Speckart with whom she raised a child that they adopted (thus becoming the first unmarried lesbian woman to have custody of a child). She comes across as a real firebrand, written up in newspaper articles for horsewhipping a minister who wouldn’t pay Harriet’s salary, throwing elbows and punches later on in life at Wobbly meetings. In 1916 she joined the Portland “Preparedness Day” (e.g. war-preparedness) with an anti-war banner “Prepare to Die, Workingman–J.P.Morgan & Co. Want Preparedness for Profit.” She later climbed a telephone pole and unleashed a banner that said “Down with the Imperialist War.” For these efforts and more, she was arrested and imprisoned under the Sedition Act. Her sentence was reduced by President Wilson from 3 years to 1 year and a day, but she ended up spending time in jail in Marin County, further irritating her claustrophobia brought on by violent police treatment earlier in life.