Book review: Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions, by Michael Helquist

Helquist Marie EquiHelquist, Michael. Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions. Oregon State University Press, 2015. 352p. PB. $24.95. ISBN 978-0870715952.

The GLBT Round Table named this scholarly but readable biography a 2016 Stonewall Honor Book in Non-Fiction. While the book appears challenging at first glance, it introduces us to an early-20th-century, not-quite-household-name pioneer who blazed trails in multiple arenas. To paraphrase Arthur Miller, attention must be paid to Marie Equi (1872-1952).

At a time when most American women could not even vote, Equi was a medical doctor providing abortion services and other care to poor and working-class patients in need, and a political activist-verging-on-anarchist, openly sharing her life with women in a series of long-term relationships- even legally adopting a child with one partner.

Equi spent most of her career in the Pacific Northwest, particularly Portland, Oregon. In 1918, she was convicted under the Sedition Act for speaking out against United States involvement in World War One, as a result of which she spent time in San Quentin Prison- the only known lesbian and radical to be so imprisoned at that point.

During her lifetime, Equi was an active member of the Industrial Workers of the World (aka, the “Wobblies”), demonstrating for such basic amenities as an eight-hour workday and the right to free speech, not to mention women’s suffrage. She was also personally and professionally involved with other prominent women of her time such as birth control advocate Margaret Sanger; one archivist characterizes Equi’s written missives to Sanger as “love letters.” Equi died in 1952 at age 80, and was praised by a colleague as “a woman of passion and conviction, and friend to the have-nots of this world.”

Helquist’s study of Equi is detailed and can appear intimidating in some ways, but his heavily-footnoted text is nevertheless accessible and engrossing. He offers Oregonian and national historical data as background to Equi’s life events, and also conveys the woman’s outgoing and charmingly persuasive personality, a trait which enabled her to make friends and influence people both on and off the picket lines.

This book is recommended for LGBT and women’s history collections, especially those with a Northwest and/or Oregon focus. Helquist’s fine title should guarantee Marie Equi a place in the lesbian/feminist “great women” pantheon.

Cathy Ritchie
Acquisitions/Selection Services
Dallas (TX) Public Library

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