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Marie Equi in the Classroom: Perpetuating a Legacy by Learning Together

November 28, 2017

Perhaps one of the most fulfilling experiences for an author is the ability to connect with an audience over the topic of his book. OSU Press author Michael Helquist recently had this opportunity to help shape the young minds of undergraduate students at Washington State University – Vancouver while perpetuating the legacy of an extraordinary woman, Marie Equi. He discussed his book Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions and was energized by the students' smart questions and engagement with the material. Michael shares his experience below.

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Michael HelquistOn a foggy November morning on a forested campus in the Pacific Northwest, I spent a few hours talking about Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions with women’s history students. They were undergraduates at Washington State University – Vancouver, and they had already read my biography of Equi. Professor Laurie Mercier had assigned the book as one of two full-volume readings for the course. Students were also required to write a 1000-word paper that examined one or two social or political movements in which Equi was involved.

Professor Mercier posed a few possibilities for the discussion papers. She suggested they consider how Equi’s background and experiences influenced her drive to become one of the few female physicians in the country. How did her gender, sexuality, and class shape her work and activism? How did Equi’s frailties and flaws reveal her humanity? Did Equi affect the city of Portland and the broader Pacific Northwest, and, related to that, is Equi’s story uniquely regional (western)? The reading and writing assignments meant that students had to engage with Equi’s story on a deeper level than if they had simply read excerpts or skimmed the book.

An Audience Who Knew the Story
This was my first opportunity to discuss my biography with undergraduates who had already read the biography. Two years ago I talked to Professor Kimberly Jensen’s graduate seminar class at Western Oregon University, and last year I spoke before a noon-time gathering for Professor Nancy Krieger’s graduate students at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. I enjoyed both those occasions, but I expected talking with undergraduates would be different. I was eager to hear how younger students reacted to Equi’s life, her radical politics, her love of women, and how she tried to stay true to herself and her associates.

About 30 students and visitors joined the discussion about Equi, including a handful of men, who had signed up for the review of women’s history from the 17th century to the present. For the first twenty minutes I introduced the question “Whose story gets told?” Why were there fewer biographies of women, political radicals, working class people, and sexual minorities? What have we as a nation and community lost as a result of not valuing these people’s stories enough to encourage retaining their writing and studying their lives? I recalled Nancy Krieger’s argument in a 1983 journal article that Equi’s story had been largely untold due to her political radicalism and transgressive sexuality. I then described my years-long search that led to a trove of Equi-related documents, including correspondence, court testimony, and more than 300 newspaper articles that confirmed Equi’s historical footprint and her voice. As a result, her story got told.

Students’ Questions
The students were hesitant, at first, to ask questions, and I reminded myself of the considerable age difference between us and how that might affect them. Once the first questions were posed, however, a steady stream followed. “How did Equi’s role and upbringing as an outsider affect her?” one student asked. That was followed by a related question about whether Equi’s outsider status led her to defend the underdog. I told the students that I thought Equi strived to be included in social and political groups all her life. But a woman in the early 1900s who worked in a profession dominated by men, a woman of working-class background who dared to become a doctor, and a relatively open lesbian who fought for radical change could not avoid being an outsider. I reminded them that in Equi’s day simply striving to be independent made a woman suspect and beyond the norm. I proposed that experiencing life as an outsider might very well have made Equi more sensitive to others who were disadvantaged or discriminated against.

Michael Helquist with WSU studentsAnother student wondered, “How did Equi avoid getting arrested for providing abortions?” I discussed the politics of abortion prosecutions in Portland during the period Equi began providing the procedure. Abortion trials spiked during the Progressive Era when activists pushed for social control as well as social reform. But there’s no documentation that Equi was either investigated or charged with providing illegal abortions. She was known to be adept at the procedure, and other doctors referred their clients seeking abortions to her. (In effect, these doctors maintained their client base while shifting legal risks to Equi). I suggested that Equi, in effect, ensured protection for herself by providing the service to the wives, daughters, or mistresses of influential men in town.

“Was Equi particularly good with the press?” another student asked. I had described in my book that reporters appeared to regard Equi as an excellent source of copy. She provided good quotes, she was opinionated and unafraid to speak out against injustice, and she had a ready sense of humor. I shared with the students a few of the more than 300 newspaper reports I discovered featuring Equi.

Once again there was the question I get almost every time I talk about the biography: “How did I learn about Marie Equi?” I credit the Portland-based Gay Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest (GLAPN) for first alerting me to Equi as a twenty-year old who horsewhipped a school superintendent in the middle of The Dalles, Oregon over a pay dispute involving her girlfriend. After that, I wanted to know more. I discovered a woman of compassion and conviction who risked her livelihood and well-being in the defense of others.

My hour with the WSU students passed quickly. We had time for a group photo and book signings. Several students thanked me for speaking to them and for writing the book. I’m grateful to them and especially to Professor Mercier for introducing Marie Equi to her students.

Additional resources:
“‘Criminal Operations’: The First Fifty Years of Abortion Trials in Portland, Oregon,” Michael Helquist, Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 116, no. 4, Spring 2015. Winner, 2016 Joel Palmer Award.

“‘Lewd, Obscene and Indecent’ The 1916 Portland Edition of Family Limitation,” Michael Helquist, Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 117, no. 2, Summer 2016.

“Adventures in Family Limitation,” history comic, Khris Soden and Michael Helquist, Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 117, no. 2, Summer 2016.

“Resistance, Dissent, and Punishment in WWI Oregon,” Michael Helquist, Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 118, no. 2, Summer 2017. Available at JSTOR.

“Portland to the Rescue: The Rose City’s Response to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire,” Michael Helquist, Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 108, no. 3, Fall 2007. Available at JSTOR.

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