“The Most Interesting Woman Who Ever Lived in this State …”

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By Robin Will, GLAPN

Dr. Marie Equi’s progressive radical lesbian feminist credentials are as germane today as they ever were. She was the talk of the town, not always in a good way, 100 years ago, and Equi’s relevance to our own times is striking.

Michael Helquist’s biography, Marie Equi, Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions, OSU Press, will be launched Monday, September 14, at Oregon Historical Society, at a 7 p.m. event that is open to the public.

All kinds of people are waiting to get their hands on this book. Students of local history, feminists, lesbians, progressives, and queer cultural historians, among others, will be vitally interested. Marie Equi is far from unknown—Portland had four daily newspapers and a host of weeklies at the time she was most famous, or notorious, so there is a public record. Scholars have been interested in her work and politics for years. However, there has never been a biography, and questions about the person behind the headlines have gone unanswered.

Marie EquiBut, oh! The headlines. Marie Equi first came to public attention in 1893, when she horsewhipped the superintendent of schools in The Dalles, for refusing to pay the salary owed to her partner. Townspeople generally approved the assault, and presented the two women with the proceeds from raffling off the whip.

That was the start. Years later, one of Equi’s contemporaries described the doctor as, “The most interesting woman who ever lived in this state, certainly the most fascinating, colorful and flamboyant.”

Well, yes … “interesting.” The word doesn’t explain what drives a person to radicalism, and it says nothing about either the rewards or the costs of defying social convention and standards of respectability, not to mention disregarding the law when it didn’t suit her. In fact, Marie Equi was interesting in a number of ways.

1. She was one of Oregon’s few female physicians (M.D., University of Oregon, 1903). The class of 1903 apparently brought the total number of female doctors in Oregon to 60.

2. In her medical practice in Portland, she fought for women’s reproductive freedom, performing abortions and participating whole-heartedly in the birth control movement, at a time when both were illegal.

3. She lived in a high-profile lesbian relationship (with the heir to the Olympia Brewing fortune, whose family publicly disapproved), and adopted a child.

4. She supported the labor movement – on the picket lines, as often as not—to the point that The Oregonian referred to strikers as “Equi’s Army.”

5. She was sentenced to three years in San Quentin, convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917, for her vociferous opposition of the First World War, and, what with a Presidential commutation and discounts for good behavior, actually served about ten months in prison.

It’s quite a price to pay for uncompromising activism, nor was it the only price. Birth control activist Margaret Sanger, who was apparently romantically involved with Equi for a time, suggested as much, commenting that Equi was “a rebellious soul, generous, kind, brave, but so radical in her thinking that she was almost an outcast.”

So here we are, in times that almost eerily parallel Equi’s own time. We wonder about the costs of principled defiance. We wonder what drove Marie Equi to do what she did, and what toll her activism took on relationships, family, and health. We want to know what Portland was like, 100 years ago. We’re probably at least a little curious about what happens to activists when they get old.

We’re about to find out. Michael Helquist is a rigorous scholar and a fine writer, and this book has been years in the making. The bits that have been leaked (citations are already showing up on Marie Equi’s Wikipedia page) show impressive breadth of research, and if page count means anything, this book weighs in with 352.

The book may be ordered online at a discount until September 1. Order at www.osupress.oregonstate.edu/book/marie-equi  and use the code EQUI to save 30 percent. Bring your book to the launch at OHS, and Michael will sign it.