A review of Michael Helquist, Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions (Oregon State University Press, 2015), £19
On May Day 1950 the dockers’ union in Portland, Oregon, presented a bouquet of 13 red roses and a poem to 78-year-old Doctor Marie Equi in honour of her years of service to the working class and the socialist cause, service that included time in San Quentin. The poem read in part:
These are for you, thirteen red roses, Doc;
Your lucky number in the old cell block
Chalked on cold stone. This day is ours
To honour heroes, mark the labour gain,
we who have suffered have our special flowers,
Deep as our blood and dark with Portland rain.
Thirteen red roses.1
Who was Marie Equi and why was she deserving of this tribute? She was born in 1872, the daughter of working class parents, of an Italian immigrant father and an Irish immigrant mother. Her first job was working in a textile factory, but she went on to go to college and to become a medical doctor. A working class woman becoming a doctor was remarkable then (it still is today!), but Equi was also a lesbian who was quite open and unashamed about her sexuality and her same sex relationships. She was a campaigner for women’s suffrage, a champion of birth control and of a woman’s right to abortion and, as we shall see, in 1913 was won over to the struggle for socialism by her involvement in a cannery workers’ strike in Portland. She became an active supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and when war came took a strong stand against it, a stand that was to earn her a three-year prison term. According to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a leading Wobbly, later one of the leaders of the Communist Party, and who lived with her for nine years, she was:
a stormy petrel…a fiery personality…among the most feared and hated women in the Northwest because of her outspoken criticisms of politicians, industrialists, so-called civic leaders and all who oppressed the poor. She was loved and cherished by masses of plain people.2
And yet, until recently this remarkable woman has been all but forgotten. She does not get a mention in the standard histories of the IWW,3 not even in Eric Thomas Chester’s invaluable recent book The Wobblies in their Heyday.4 She was celebrated in a path-breaking article by Nancy Krieger, “Queen of the Bolsheviks: The Hidden History of Dr Marie Equi”, that appeared in the much missed US journal, Radical America, back in 1983.5 But it is only with the publication of Michael Helquist’s new biography that a giant step has at last been taken towards remedying the neglect of this remarkable woman and fighter for socialism.
In July 1913 some 200 women working for the Oregon Packing Company walked out on strike. They were overwhelmingly young women, the majority aged between 12 and 20, working up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, canning fruit in appalling conditions, for a wage that averaged less than 10 cents an hour. They turned to the Portland IWW for support. Some of the strikers were Equi’s patients so she knew the exploitation they endured and decided to give them her support on the picket line. The strikers attempted to rally popular support for their cause with demonstrations and street meetings that soon involved clashes with the sheriff and his deputies. At one street meeting the deputies arrested and roughed up everyone who tried to mount the soap box and speak, including the pregnant Agnes O’Connor, one of Equi’s patients. Outraged at this behaviour, Equi began abusing the deputies, swapping blows with them that left her badly bruised. She then led a march on the jail to demand the prisoners be released. Here, according to the newspapers, she punched two deputies in the face and maintained such a torrent of abuse that the sheriff ordered O’Connor’s release. Equi’s involvement in the struggle continued and she was herself later arrested, accused of stabbing a deputy with a hat pin. She was held for three days, roughed up (when she was released her friends “noticed bruises all over her body”6), abused and threatened with incarceration in an asylum if she did not leave Portland. She remained defiant. Before the strike was over she was to be trampled by a police horse when a demonstration was violently broken up, but she never faltered in her active support for the strikers. The strike went down to defeat with the workers replaced by scabs provided by “a local religious group”.7 For Equi though, it taught a clear lesson: “It was my experiences during that strike that made me a socialist… Any betterment of conditions must come about by direct action, in other words militancy”.8
Her involvement with the IWW continued. Towards the end of 1913 she was active in the Wobbly-sponsored Unemployed League, protesting against the use of the vagrancy laws to drive the unemployed homeless out of the town. In February 1914, she was the Unemployed League’s delegate to the National Conference on Unemployment in New York where she defended the IWW and proclaimed herself a “radical socialist”.9 When the massacre of Wobbly members trying to land in the port of Everett to reinforce a Free Speech campaign took place on 5 November 1916, she rushed to give medical assistance to the wounded. Indeed, her standing in the IWW was such that when Oregon received its envelope of Joe Hill’s ashes, she was given the honour of dispersing them on 19 November 1916.10
Birth control and abortion
One often neglected campaign that the IWW fought was in favour of birth control. Margaret Sanger, a nurse, was the most active and vocal birth control advocate of the time. She was to become a strong IWW supporter and activist, won over during a laundry workers’ strike in New York. Sanger was actively involved in the victorious 1912 Lawrence textile strike, was to be arrested twice during the less successful silk workers’ strike in Hazelton and played an important role in the 1913 Paterson strike. She was outraged by the defeat in Paterson and in March 1914 started her own magazine, The Woman Rebel. It was while discussing the launch of the magazine that one of her friends, Otto Bobsein, actually first coined the term “birth control”. The Woman Rebel had a decidedly anarchist tone, advocating among other things: “The right to be an umarried mother. The right to destroy. The right to create. The right to live. The right to love”. It proclaimed as its watchword the slogan: “No Gods, No Masters”. As far as Sanger was concerned, “woman is enslaved by the world machine, by sex conventions, by motherhood and its present necessary childrearing, by wage-slavery, by middle class morality, by customs, laws and superstitions”. Women had to look “the whole world in the face with a go-to-hell look in the eyes; to have an ideal; to speak and act in defiance of convention”. The Woman Rebel certainly lived up to this expectation.
On 20 April 1914, state militia and company guards attacked a tent encampment erected at Ludlow, Colorado by striking miners. They had been evicted from their company houses by John D Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. The camp was machine-gunned and set on fire. By the time the attack was over there were more than 20 miners and family members dead including two women and 11 children. A number of miners who were taken prisoner were summarily executed by their captors. This episode was part of what was, in effect, a small-scale war between strikers and scabs, company guards and the state militia. There were furious protests against this particularly brutal act of class war. Some months later, on 4 July 1914, an anarchist bomb, intended to blow up John D Rockefeller’s New York mansion in retaliation for the Ludlow massacre, exploded prematurely killing the conspirators instead, including one IWW member, Arthur Caron. Sanger celebrated them for having “courage, determination, conviction, a spirit of defiance”. The magazine published a defence of the assassination of tyrants and urged its readers to always “Remember Ludlow”. At this point, the US government moved to suppress the magazine. In August, Sanger was indicted on four counts, three of indecency and one of incitement to “murder and assassination”. The charges carried a maximum sentence of 45 years.11
While awaiting trial, she wrote her pamphlet, Family Limitation, which, as her biographer puts it, not only provided birth control information, but also embraced the rhetoric of revolution. When the pamphlet was finished, she disguised herself and using a false name, crossed into Canada, shipping out from there to safety in Liverpool. Once safely on board ship, she cabled Bill Shatoff,12 the Wobbly, “who was waiting to release 100,000 copies of Family Limitation, already addressed and bundled and awaiting distribution through IWW locals and other sympathetic groups”.13
Sanger was to return to the United States in February 1916, by which time the charges against her had been dropped. Once back home, she toured the country, lecturing on birth control. She spoke in Portland, where Equi was one of the leading figures in the local Birth Control League, on 19 June. The police arrested three men selling copies of Family Limitation, whereupon Equi climbed on a table and began giving copies away for free. Not to be intimidated, another lecture was planned. Meanwhile, Equi revised the pamphlet, which was rushed into print. When Sanger returned to Portland for another lecture on 29 June it was this revised edition that was on sale. When she began speaking to a packed hall, the police arrested her, Equi and two other women. A large crowd followed the police to the jail and demonstrated outside, “calling out in solidarity and defiance, ‘We have also broken the law’”. They were subsequently tried along with the three men arrested at the earlier meeting and all were found guilty of circulating a “lewd, obscene and indecent book”.14 The men received a suspended $10 fine and the women a caution. Equi’s response to this led to her being threatened with contempt of court. Later meetings took place without interference.
Equi’s commitment to birth control education was accompanied by her belief in a woman’s right to abortion, a right that she actively facilitated in Portland, providing abortions for both the wealthy and the poor, the former subsidising the latter. And, of course, she was an open lesbian. Indeed, in April 1915, she and her partner of 15 years, Harriet Speckart, even adopted a daughter, Mary. At this time, adoption was often an informal procedure. While her sexuality was certainly used to turn public opinion against her, homosexual women were not subjected to the legal persecution that was inflicted on homosexual men. At this time, Oregon law punished sodomy with from two to five years in prison and the Oregon State Penitentiary “confined many men for these offences”. In 1913, the state’s new Eugenics Law introduced castration as a punishment available “for the crime of sodomy. This law remained in effect until the 1960s”.15
As the US prepared to intervene in the European war that had began in 1914, Equi threw herself into anti-war activity. When Portland held its Preparedness Parade on 3 June 1916, the assembled patriots were confronted by Equi with a banner: “Prepare to Die, Workingmen—J P Morgan and Co Want Preparedness for Profit”. The banner was destroyed and she was roughed up and arrested. On another occasion, when the IWW tried to hold an anti-war meeting and everyone who mounted the soapbox was arrested one after another, she borrowed a telegraph lineman’s spurs and climbed to the top of a telegraph pole. Once at the top she displayed her banner, “Down with the Imperialist War” and addressed the crowd while the police stood by helpless.
When the US went to war, any opposition was treated as treason and a ferocious wave of repression was unleashed against the left. The reformist Socialist Party bore the brunt of the assault. The IWW leadership tried to escape this repression by not participating in the anti-war movement. The intention was to concentrate on building up the union on the job. But many rank and file members ignored this strategy and threw themselves into anti-war activity. As IWW militant and anti-war activist Frank Little later pointed out, the strategy was futile because the government was going to come after the IWW leadership anyway. He was absolutely right.
Equi herself was finally arrested on 30 June 1918 for an anti-war speech she had made at the IWW hall a few days earlier. She was charged with insulting the flag, US soldiers and Britain (she had spoken in wholehearted support of the Easter Rising).16 This was the culmination of a large-scale operation by the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) involving eight agents who “tracked her every move” and installed “wiretaps in her rooms”. The Bureau had also successfully placed an informer, Margaret Lowell Paul, posing as a member of Sinn Féin, in her circle of friends. According to the Bureau’s Portland chief, William Bryon, Equi was “one of the most dangerous anarchists and plotters against constituted authority in the United States”. She was “an anarchist, a degenerate and an abortionist”.17
Her trial did not begin until 12 November, the day after the war ended. The reality was that she was not being prosecuted for her opposition to the war, but because she was a Red, a Wobbly and a radical socialist. Her trial was part of the Red scare that had been launched against the left during the war but was actually intensified in the post-war years. In Equi’s particular case, the authorities also felt that they were dealing with “the embodiment of the liberated woman as monster” and called on the jury “to re-establish control over such disorderly women”.18 At her trial, the prosecutor, Bert Haney, described Equi as an “unsexed woman”. He revealed what the trial was all about in his summing up when he told the jury that “The red flag is floating over Russia, Germany and a great part of Europe. Unless you put this woman in jail, I tell you it will float over the world”.19 She was found guilty and sentenced to three years.
While her case was going through the appeal process, Equi continued to be politically active. She was arrested on 13 March 1919 because her IWW membership violated Oregon’s anti-syndicalism law, but was never prosecuted. In a speech she made in Portland on 31 October 1919 she told her audience: “We may think we live in a free country, but we are in reality nothing but slaves. When President Wilson recently said we are at war he spoke the truth for once. But it is not a war against another nation, but a never-ending class war within our own country”.20
Her appeals were all unsuccessful and on 19 October 1920 she finally surrendered herself at San Quentin prison where she remained for ten months. She was released on 10 September 1921. By now she was unwell, her health damaged by her prison experience, and the left had been defeated. She remained on the left, but was only episodically involved in political activity. In February 1929 she spoke at a meeting demanding justice for IWW activist Tom Mooney. Earlier, in 1926, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, in a state of nervous collapse after the failure to save Sacco and Vanzetti,21 had come to live with her in Portland, and they remained together for nearly ten years.
The great dock strike of 1934, one of the class battles that heralded the revival of working class struggle and militancy in the US, saw Equi leave their home to stand on the dockers’ picket line. It was the first time in two years that she had gone out, such was her health. She donated $250 to the strike fund. When the Portland police issued a “Red List” of dangerous subversives living in the area that same year, she was outraged at being left off the list and threatened to sue. Marie Equi deserves, indeed demands, to be remembered.
John Newsinger is a member of Brighton SWP. His most recent book is On the Picket Line with the IWW: Big Bill Haywood’s Revolutionary Journalism.
1 Munk, 2007, p58.
2 Flynn 1973, pp197-198. According to Lillian Faderman, Flynn’s relationship with Equi was “very disturbing” for the Communist Party leadership, especially when Flynn “revealed her lesbianism in a draft of her 1955 memoir, Alderson Story, but according to one source, the party not only censored the chapter but even insisted on ‘substituting an anti-gay chapter’ in its place”. As Faderman notes, “most historians…until recently omitted discussing the nature of Flynn’s relationship with Marie Equi from accounts of Flynn’s life”—Faderman 1999, p162.
3 Foner, 1965; Dubofsky, 1969; Thompson and Bekken, 2006.
4 Chester, 2014.
5 Krieger, 1983.
6 Helquist, 2015, p121.
7 Chandler, 2013, p177.
8 Krieger, 1983, p60.
9 Helquist, 2015, p125.
10 IWW member and union organiser Joe Hill had been framed for murder, tried and then executed by firing squad on 19 November 1915. A year later to the day his ashes were dispersed in every state except Utah—where he had been judicially lynched—and across much of the world.
11 Chesler, 2007, pp75-76 and 97-102.
12 Bill Shatoff was a Russian anarchist who had emigrated to the US but later returned to Russia and became a Bolshevik. He disappeared during Stalin’s Great Terror.
13 Chesler, 2007, p103.
14 Helquist, 2015, p150.
15 Chandler, 2013, p168.
16 Equi was a strong supporter of the Irish republican struggle and had many friends in the republican movement. For a while, she had a relationship with Kathleen O’Brennan, an Irish republican and IWW member, who helped organise the New York dockers’ boycott of British ships in 1920. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, whose husband had been murdered by the British in 1916, was also a life-long friend.
17 Helquist, 2015, pp163, 168; Krieger, 1983, p67.
18 Kennedy, 1999, p97.
19 Helquist, 2015, p176.
20 Krieger, 1983.
21 Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two US anarchists who were framed for murder in 1920 and executed seven years later.