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The doctor is in

August 20, 2015

 

The arrival of a new book always spurs excitement around the office, but the appearance of Michael Helquist’s fascinating work was especially thrilling. Following the life of one of the West’s first well-known lesbians, Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions fills a startling gap in the lexicon of Oregon history. Helquist joins us today to discuss the extraordinary Dr. Equi and what drove him to share her story.

 

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What first drew you to Marie Equi?

 

Once I read about Marie Equi as a slight 21-year-old who horsewhipped a Baptist minister in Marie Equithe center of The Dalles, Oregon, I wanted to know more. The minister was also a school superintendent who had refused to pay Equi’s girlfriend her full teacher’s salary. Equi was tired of urging him to cooperate, and she grabbed a horsewhip in frustration. The incident received notice throughout the West that summer of 1893. The notorious episode was the first public recognition of Oregon women in a lesbian relationship, and newspapers throughout the state and in California covered the story. One newspaper account stated that Equi’s feeling for her girlfriend “amounts to adoration.”  Another described the two women’s intent to remain “indissoluble friends whom nothing can separate."*

 

This exposure of same-sex love, along with another in 1906 in Portland, was sensational then and intriguing now. But these occasions also offer a glimpse into what people knew about sexuality and how they discussed intimacy and sex. This was a time when the new fields of psychology and sexology argued new understanding of sexual expression and sexual identity. We have very little information about how West Coast people reacted to these reports.

 

 

Considering the time and effort required of such an undertaking, why did you find it important to write the biography?

 

I became intrigued with the question of whose story gets told. For a very long time, marginalized people – women, racial minorities, the working class and poor people, political radicals, and LGBTQ people – seldom had their stories told. With their absence, we’ve lost an essential part of our history. As an historian, I wanted to help counter that trend.

 

Marie Equi was a ready and willing protagonist. She made an impact on many political and social issues. Imagine someone today who fights on the front lines for voting rights, reproductive rights, a livable wage, affordable housing, and an overhaul of the criminal justice system. Equi did all that nearly 100 years ago.

 

Equi’s experiences expand our understanding of how some women adopted a more radical strategy for fighting injustice. Her insights reveal what it meant to be an activist then and how to deal with the repercussions of standing firm with your beliefs today.

 

 

Did you run across any surprises during research?

 

Sometimes I wanted to shout out loud in a library or reading room when I came across new MarieEquiBookdiscoveries. One time I was scanning old newspapers on microfilm in the New Bedford Free Public Library, and I found a feature on Marie Equi’s 1914 visit there, her hometown. In an interview, she warned of an uprising if jobless men and women were not given jobs and food. The article gave me a sense of how Equi was received once she had adopted more radical politics.

 

I also learned from other new sources how vulnerable Equi felt behind much of the bombast of her actions. She undertook risky, dangerous protests, even when she knew she would probably be physically attacked as a result. She suffered trauma from the beating and third degree the police delivered after her arrest for joining a strike in 1913. Then she felt betrayed by her government for sending her to prison for sedition when she had spoken against World War I.   

 

 

What did you find most difficult when writing the biography?

 

Finding my writer’s voice for this project vexed me for a long time. I wanted to write intriguing history for a general audience, but also to produce a work with scholarly significance. That balance is difficult to maintain.

 

 

Do you have a favorite quote of Marie Equi’s?

 

I have two. In 1913 Equi picketed with women cannery workers who protested their very low wages and deplorable working conditions. The Oregonian newspaper described her as “dangerously insane” for fighting off the police. Equi retorted:

 

“It was beyond the imagination of these people who repeatedly attacked me, that a professional woman of established practice and reputation, of some money and high standing in the community could set these aside and get out and work for her unfortunate sisters and brothers – therefore I must be insane.” 

 

And another. In the midst of the West Coast maritime strike of 1934, Equi left her sickbed to visit the local union office. She wanted to “do something for the boys,” she said, and she donated $250 for men wounded during the strike. A reporter was surprised by her generosity, but Equi replied, “Young man, money is a thing despised. I claim no honor or glory in giving this sum. If I had my name in the paper every time I gave away money, I’d look like a daily feature.”

 

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Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions is now available for purchase. Place an order today by calling 1 (800) 621-2736 or paying here online. You may also find a copy at your local bookstore.

 

*Photo to the right found on MichaelHelquist.com, attributed to Oregon Historical Society #23496.

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