By Lisa E. Davis
Once upon a time, there was a radical left in America. Its existence, its protagonists, its principles, and aspirations have been more or less purged from our political consciousness. Likewise, the very limited gay and lesbian history we possess does not have a lot to say about our early involvement in left-wing politics.
It is, therefore, with gratitude for his exhaustive research that we turn to writer, activist and historian Michael Helquist, and his biography of Dr. Marie Equi (1872-1952), who claimed the title “Queen of the Bolsheviks” for her life-long commitment to alleviate suffering and advance the cause of the common people.
Always passionate, seldom idle, Equi threw herself into the struggles of her time and place. As a doctor of medicine, who lived most of her adult life in Portland, Oregon, Equi joined the team that went to San Francisco after the earthquake (1906) to care for survivors. A strenuous campaign, where Equi played an active role, won women the right to vote in Oregon by 1912 (eight years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote nationwide). She proudly signed on as a member of Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, with its remarkably enlightened platform. The election of Woodrow Wilson defeated both, and Equi’s allegiances began to shift further left.
From our point of view, what is as remarkable as Equi’s public persona is her private life, against all odds, as a lesbian. The case for an earlier generation of women who lived as couples, and played decisive roles in American reform movements, has been laid out by Lillian Faderman (To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done For America, 1999). Helquist’s biography adds Equi to that remarkable circle, expanding and deepening our knowledge of lesbians and their lives in the Pacific Northwest.
Equi’s relationships sometimes made headlines. Most notable was her 13-year romance with Harriet Speckart, a woman of some means, whose family – because there was money involved – accused Equi of all manner of chicanery. One feature story charged her with hypnotizing Harriet into doing her biding. When the hullabaloo subsided, the women quietly took up their lives, shared a home for many years, adopted and cared for a daughter (Mary Jr.).
There were other romances – with some details found in rare correspondence between Equi and those she loved – from the pioneering woman whose homestead she shared in The Dalles, to champions of Irish independence, to Margaret Sanger, who opened the nation’s first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The latter was “a model operation that evolved into Planned Parenthood clinics across the country” (Helquist, pp. 150-51).
Early commentators, including the late Rosalyn Baxandall, Words on Fire: The Life and Writings of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1987), have speculated about a romance between Equi and Flynn – “The Rebel Girl” of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, from 1905, still organizing, i.e., Starbucks Workers Union), and later a member of the National Board of the Communist Party USA. Flynn did, in fact, stay in Equi’s home in Portland from 1926 to 1936, recuperating physically and mentally from the stress of political activism.
Helquist finds no evidence of a love affair, but certainly of a sure and steady rise over the decades – in the company of women like Flynn – of Equi’s political conscience: from 1913, when she supported female strikers at a fruit-processing cannery in Portland, to providing free medical care to survivors of the 1916 “massacre” of IWW strikers in the timber town of Everett, Washington, to her appearance on the Portland docks in support of the ILA (International Longshoremen’s Association) and the 1934 Maritime Strike, and beyond.
Like Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) as played out on the screen in the recent film Suffragette (2015), Equi grew in courage and conviction. A woman with deep working-class roots, who spent her youth in a textile mill in New Bedford, Massachusetts, before she went West and re-invented herself as a medical professional, Equi reminds us that worthwhile causes may require a lot of us all.
And like others – among them Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was incarcerated (at age 62) for her Communist affiliation at Federal Prison Camp, Alderson, WVA – Equi paid a bitter price for her activism. For speaking out against war, she was convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917, and served a prison term in San Quentin that came close to breaking her spirit.
Helquist’s intense and superbly crafted biography should be a call to action and sacrifice. Readers will recognize right away, when confronted with today’s struggles – abortion rights, wars everywhere, jobs and a living wage for working people – which side Equi would be on.
Lisa E. Davis is the author of Under the Mink. A Novel (2001, 2015).