By ANGIE JABINE
Born in 1872 to an East Coast, working-class immigrant family, Marie Diana Equi seemed destined to become just another New Bedford millworker. But by 1891 she was homesteading with her Wellesley-educated girlfriend near The Dalles, where she made national headlines after publicly horsewhipping a corrupt school superintendent.
As one of Oregon’s first female physicians, Equi led an acclaimed relief mission to San Francisco in the wake of the 1906 earthquake and fire. She also performed then-illegal abortions, and she was arrested with Margaret Sanger in 1916 for distributing birth control pamphlets. She led workers’ protests and strikes and called herself a Radical Socialist and anarchist. She was convicted of sedition for opposing U.S. involvement in World War I and served nearly 10 months in San Quentin. On returning to Portland, she cohabited with the labor activist—and future Communist Party USA chairwoman—Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
You’d think a figure as memorable as Marie Equi would be at least as familiar to Oregon history lovers as, say, Sacajawea, John Reed, or Abigail Scott Duniway. One of Equi’s contemporaries called her “the most interesting woman that ever lived in this state, certainly the most fascinating, colorful, and flamboyant.” But up until now, she seems to have been erased from the record, her story primarily scattered among old newspaper clippings and unpublished oral histories by those who befriended her in her later years.
A vivid new biography from Oregon State University Press ought to change all that. In a thoughtful yet page-turning account of Equi’s life and times, social historian Michael Helquist has portrayed not just a remarkably gutsy woman but also an era of street-level activism that makes today’s Occupy protests look like a barn dance.
As a girl, Equi was, according to one teacher, a “very earnest scholar,” and to another, an “exceptionally unruly, headstrong girl.” The fifth daughter in a large family of limited means, she dropped out of high school after one year to take a job in a textile mill, where she saw children doing hazardous, back-breaking work. An older, more affluent high school classmate, Betsy Bell Holcomb, petitioned a local preparatory school to admit her friend Marie, whose traits she described as “impulsiveness, generosity, kindness of heart, genuine religious feeling, and earnestness.” Equi worked hard and did well at the school, but after her first year, no scholarship was forthcoming, and Holcomb and her family could no longer afford to pay her friend’s tuition.
Now at loose ends and having already spurned one suitor, Equi was packed off to live with her father’s relatives in Tuscany, where she became fluent in Italian and, she later told friends, attended the University of Pisa. Her friend Betsy Holcomb, meanwhile, had a bolder plan: She bought a train ticket to Oregon and staked her claim on a homestead just outside of The Dalles. Within a year, she had planted a two-acre garden, completed work on a 12-by-32-foot house, and invited Equi to come join her. A few months later, in September 1892, she did.
While Marie tended the garden and kept house, Bessie taught school, and this is what led to the horsewhipping that made headlines in the San Francisco Examiner and the New York Times. The superintendent was a Baptist minister who was notorious on both sides of the Columbia Gorge for bamboozling ignorant land speculators, and it was his refusal to pay the balance of Bessie’s salary for the spring term of 1893 that prompted Marie, in front of a throng of spectators, to thrash him with a rawhide whip. Published reports dropped heavy hints about the two young women’s “ardent affection,” but the overall consensus seemed to be that the minister had it coming.
Equi and Holcomb had befriended another independent-minded woman in The Dalles, Belle Cooper Rinehart, who was faced with potential penury that same year, 1893, when her husband died of complications from appendicitis. Needing a way to support herself and her four young sons, she left them with her parents and enrolled in medical school, first at Willamette University in Salem and then at the University of Oregon in Portland. At the end of 1896, when Holcomb “proved out” her land claim, Equi decided she, too, would seek medical training, which she did, first in San Francisco and then in Portland.
By 1905 she had established a general medical practice in Portland with an emphasis on gynecology, obstetrics, and maternal and child health. And the next year 1906, she earned more good press in San Francisco and Portland (and a U.S. Army medal) for her leadership of the Portland nurses who cared for more than 350 San Francisco fire victims. That good press would be counter-balanced by the scandalized coverage of the 37-year-old Equi’s relationship with 22-year-old Harriet Speckart, a heiress whose uncle was the founder of the Olympia Brewing Company. Despite the furor, it proved to be the longest intimate relationship of Equi’s life.
The era from the 1890s to the advent of World War I, when Equi was at her bravest and boldest, was a tumultuous one for the nation. The women’s suffrage movement was in full swing, and labor activists such as the International Workers of the World (known as the Wobblies) clashed again and again with police and private security forces, in Portland as in so many other cities. Equi was an active and vocal suffragist and an equally avid unionist, one who could be counted on to stand on a soapbox and defend the workers and, when necessary, stitch up their wounds.
It was also a time when radical progressives such as Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn could take their ideas on tour and find large audiences—including those who came only to heckle or worse. It seems almost inconceivable today, but this was the golden age of lecture tours, when there was precious little competition for the public’s entertainment dollar—no radio, no movie screens, no TV, just traveling tent shows, vaudeville revues, and lecturers on every topic, ranging from spiritualism to women’s rights. Equi made sure she met all the radical women who came through Portland, and fell in love with more than one of them.
With Europe embroiled in a world war, pressure was steadily mounting not only to get the U.S. involved but to stamp out dissenters, especially pacifists, anarchists, and unionists. By 1918 Equi had been charged with sedition and was out on bail. No fewer than eight agents of the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Divisionand kept her under secret surveillance, both at her home near Mount Tabor and her downtown medical clinic and hotel suite. Interrupted by frequent delays due to the global Spanish flu, her case went to trial in 1919 and she was convicted. Prominent left-wing Portland attorney C.E.S. Wood led her appeal, but to no avail, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied her request for review. As Equi entered prison she would be leaving behind Portland, her practice, and a daughter, Mary, who was born to a pair of unwed parents in 1915, and whom she had legally adopted with the understanding that Harriet would be her primary mother.
A model prisoner at San Quentin, Equi was released in 1921. By 1923 she had resumed her medical practice and purchased a house on the upper flanks of Goose Hollow on Portland’s west side. The IWW leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn lived with her there off and on for ten years, as did “Mary Jr.” after Harriet Speckart died at age 44 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Equi resided there for 27 years, until two years before her death in 1952.
Portland public relations consultant and publicist Bette Sinclair now lives in Equi’s house, and when Equi’s biographer Michael Helquist visited Portland this September (he’s a Portland native now living in San Francisco), she hosted a reception in what used to be Equi’s living room. The assembled guests toasted the whiskey-loving firebrand with twelve-year-old Johnny Walker as Sinclair and Helquist both spoke of Equi, her remarkable life, and the pain of learning that most of her personal and business correspondence had been destroyed after her death.
Ironically, Helquist points out, the U.S. Justice Department’s extensive surveillance of Equi’s day-to-day movements in the period leading up to her sedition trial and during her imprisonment proved to be one of his richest sources of information about her. “The federal agency that sought to silence Equi,” he writes in the biography, “became the largest repository of materials that give voice to her political thinking, radical acts, and personal relationships.” These records were of immeasurable help to Helquist in telling Marie Equi’s story at last.
On Tuesday, October 27, Michael Helquist will discuss Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions at 6:30 pm (doors open at 5 pm) at McMenamin’s Edgefield, 2126 SW Halsey, Troutdale, OR. For details, visit