The revival of forgotten radical lesbian Marie Equi

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The shameful erasure of radical women from historical accounts is often an accepted fact. However, Michael Helquist’s Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions presents a nuanced portrayal of a woman who refused to be silenced. As the title suggests, Helquist weaves together a portrayal of a woman who lived fully against the conventions of an unwelcoming society. A working class activist with political and personal passions, Equi is an example of early radical American feminism. 

Born in 1872 Massachusetts, Equi refused to be a product of the time; rather, she fought for free speech, health care, and women’s rights  – all while retaining her lower class roots. Equi was trained as a doctor, even assisting with 1906 San Fransisco earthquake. She maintained a strong activist presence through her profession; she assisted with protests campaigning for higher wages for female workers and found a radicalized stance after witnessing police brutality during demonstrations.  

“Why I am going to speak where and when I wish,” Equi is quoted as saying “No man will stop me.”

Helquist brings together various historical accounts of Equi’s life, including her numerous lesbian relationships. Perhaps most notable was her thirteen year relationship with Harriet Specktart. Specktart and Equi’s relationship created rifts not only due to it’s lesbian nature, but also because of the income gap between the two families. Equi was staunchly lower class, whereas Speckhart came from money. However, both women overcame discrimination and adopted a child, named Mary Jr.

Like many politized leftists and challengers, Equi was jailed for speaking against the state. In response to her anti war sentiments, Equi was sent to San Quentin to serve a near debilitating prison sentence.

Yet, Equi’s spirit was instrumental to many political causes. Fellow Oregon labor activist Julia Ruutila described her as a “woman of passion and conviction (and) a real friend of the havenots of this world.

“I think she’s the most interesting woman that ever lived in this state, certainly the most fascinating, colorful, and flamboyant.”

Check out Helquist’s groundbreaking biography here.

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