What We Can Learn From Portland’s “Queen of the Bolsheviks”

What We Can Learn From Portland’s “Queen of the Bolsheviks”

What We Can Learn From Portland’s “Queen of the Bolsheviks”

More than a century ago, the US government tried to silence Marie Equi, a radical queer abortionist.


In the first week of January 1920, power brokers in the United States were gripped by fear. The Red Scare was burning bright, and Russia’s October Revolution of 1917 was still fresh in capitalists’ minds. The nation had seen a post–World War I upswing in labor activity and strikes. Even worse, the radical Industrial Workers of the World were agitating from coast to coast, and the union’s anti-capitalist message was finding purchase among disaffected, exploited workers, who would form crowds in front of IWW speakers on soapboxes. Anarchists, communists, socialists, and trade unionists—many of whom were immigrants, women, and people of color—were publicly and loudly pointing out the inequities and indignities of capitalist exploitation.

When the United States entered World War I, the government was furious that workers and radicals dared to criticize its actions. The 1917 Espionage Act had essentially criminalized opposition to the war, and President Woodrow Wilson soon signed more legislation aimed at curtailing dissent. The Sedition Act of 1918 made it illegal to publicly criticize the government, the military, the draft, or the flag itself, and the US Justice Department saw it as an opportunity to ramp up its long-running war on the left—and to declare open season on the IWW. In November 1919 through early January 1920, the department launched a series of crackdowns known as the Palmer Raids. Under the auspices of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, more than 500 people were deported, including anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, and over 3,000 people were arrested. Among the latter was a woman named Marie Equi.

She was already well-known throughout Oregon by the time she was arrested. She was a highly respected doctor known for ministering to poor families and unemployed laborers. She provided abortions to those who needed them, and threw herself into the struggle for women’s suffrage. She was also one of the Pacific Northwest’s most prominent lesbians. From the moment she ran away with a high school girlfriend to try their hands at homesteading in rural Oregon to when she legally adopted a baby with her longtime partner Harriet Speckart, Equi stayed true to her principles and to herself even when it seemed like the entire world—or at least, the entirety of the US government—was against her. One of her first newspaper appearances came in 1893, when The Dalles Times-Mountaineer reported that she’d publicly horsewhipped a boss who’d withheld wages from one of her romantic partners. That was only the beginning of Equi’s public fight against the cheats, capitalists, and warmongers who constituted her enemies in the class war, a stance that would eventually earn her the nickname of Portland’s “Queen of the Bolsheviks.”

Her association with the IWW feels especially timely now, when the union’s Northwestern outposts have been making broad strides in their efforts at organizing fast-food workers. After spending years locked in bitter contract negotiations, employees of Burgerville, an Oregon-based chain, finally reached a tentative agreement with the company in November 2021, later ratifying the contract. In December 2021, the National Labor Relations Board found that Voodoo Doughnut, a local chain, had illegally surveilled, retaliated against, and fired workers during the course of a union certification election. The company reached a settlement with its workers’ IWW-affiliated union, Doughnut Workers United. While the IWW tends to get short shrift—or sometimes even outright hostility—from the traditional labor movement, its anti-capitalist, industrial focus clearly still resonates with workers a century after Equi threw in her lot with the Wobblies.

Born into a large Catholic Italian Irish immigrant family in New Bedford, Mass., Equi was a bright and devoted student who nonetheless was compelled to drop out of school as a young teen to work in the city’s textile mills. A well-off high school friend, Betsy Bell Holcomb, stepped in and helped fund Equi’s education for as long as she could—and when she couldn’t afford to help her any longer, the pair headed West to Oregon, where Equi would find her calling. The next decade would see Equi attend medical school in San Francisco and then set up her private practice in Portland, where she specialized in women’s health and became involved with the women’s suffrage movement. When the Great San Francisco Fire of 1906 leveled her former home, Equi was the only woman to join a delegation of doctors who collected 20 tons of medical supplies and traveled down from Oregon to offer aid to the victims. The local press lavished her with praise. She had no way of knowing that her relationship with the nation’s media would never be quite so rosy again.

Upon her return from San Francisco, Equi became one of the most trusted abortionists in Portland, treating people from every social class—and deftly avoiding the attention of law enforcement. She pioneered a sliding-scale model by which rich patients were charged more to subsidize the cost of treating poorer ones. As a lifelong outsider, she was unbothered by the social stigma and potential legal implications surrounding her work. Her friend Lew Levy once explained, “She did most of it for nothing, because working-class women needed it. If they could, they paid, if not, not.”

Her abortion work placed Equi at odds with many of her cohort in the Progressive movement, and she gradually found herself drifting into more radical waters. When women workers at a fruit cannery on Portland’s east side walked out in June 1913, she was called to one of the workers’ homes to render medical attention. It was the height of cherry season, in which women were expected to work for five to eight cents an hour in filthy conditions; when 200 of them walked out in protest, the ensuing battle became one of the Pacific Northwest’s first strikes led by women workers. As Equi passed the picket line en route to her house call, she recognized several of her former patients among the strikers, and when they invited her over, she hopped up on a barrel and began exhorting the workers still inside the plant to come out and join the strike. That initial protest blossomed into a full-fledged labor battle, and Equi’s commanding presence became a fixture on the increasingly volatile picket lines, where local police charged the strikers on horseback and striking women faced off against cops in the streets. Equi was nabbed for stabbing a policeman with a steel hatpin, and as she was taken to the police station during her first arrest of many, the final vestiges of her liberal faith in government reform fell away, and she was reborn a revolutionary. “I started in this fight a socialist, but I am now an anarchist,” she proclaimed. “I’m going to speak where and when I wish. No man will stop me.”

That commitment to free speech was a defining aspect of the IWW’s activism in the 20th century. Unlike the distorted interpretation offered by subsequent generations of bad-faith reactionaries, the Wobblies’ definition of free speech was simple: They fought for the right to speak in public, to stand on their soapboxes and spread their message of industrial unionism, anti-capitalism, and the One Big Union to whoever wished to listen. This should be protected by the First Amendment, but there was—and still is—a yawning gap between theory and practice when it comes down to who is actually allowed to exercise that right. Before the advent of television and radio, public performance was the main source of entertainment, and soapboxing was a popular means of mass communication used by politicians, actors, preachers, and political activists alike. Despite a widespread street-speaking tradition, Wobblies were routinely beaten, arrested, and imprisoned for attempting to speak publicly, hauled away in front of crowds of onlookers by police as local and federal politicians fretted and fumed about their “anti-American” messaging.

Cities passed reams of local ordinances and vagrancy laws to prevent the Wobblies from speaking, but every effort to quash their resolve was met by fervent resistance. The union developed a wickedly effective formula to combat these efforts at repression: When the first Wobbly to attempt to speak in a new location was pulled down off their soapbox, another would hop up and take their place, and so on and so forth until the jails were full. If the city stuck to its guns, a call would be sent out and Wobblies from across the country would pour into the offending locale, pack its jails, siphon off city resources, and generally refuse to give in until they either won the fight, a deal was struck, or a bout of state violence got the best of them. Free speech fights broke out in Spokane, Wash.; Missoula, Mont.; Kansas City, Mo.; Sioux City, Idaho; and San Diego, Calif. as well as in Portland, Ore., when the IWW caught wind of the fruit cannery strike and showed up with soapboxes at the ready. It was here that the memory of her working-class childhood, her leftist political awakening, and the marks of an unequal system that she saw etched into her patients’ bodies each day led her to throw her lot in with the Wobblies. The cannery strike failed, but the movement gained a giant.

Equi’s involvement with the IWW was only one aspect of her quest to realize her political goals. Because of her status as a professional, she never became a full IWW member, but she was one of the IWW’s fiercest advocates, speakers, and representatives. Her fiery temper was legendary, as was her militant commitment to free speech and her unshakable resolve when it came to her anti-capitalist, pro-worker politics. She also became close to the IWW’s famed “rebel girl” Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who cofounded the ACLU and served as chairwoman of the Communist Party USA, and whose zeal for soapboxing and unflappable commitment to the cause drew Equi’s respect. Later in life, the two lived together for nearly a decade, caring for each other during recurring bouts of ill health and exhaustion; the exact nature of their relationship remains unknown, but there was undoubtedly a deep emotional connection that kept the two women bound together.

When the United States entered World War I, Equi’s anti-war stance set her apart from her family and her peers in the Portland medical community, but she refused to be cowed by public disapproval. During a patriotic parade in 1917, she unfurled a banner reading, “Prepare to die, workingmen, JP Morgan & Co. want preparedness for profit.” Those bold actions underlined her commitment to her political stance, but put a target on her back.

Police arrested Equi as she was giving a speech decrying US involvement in the war on June 30, 1918, the same day that law enforcement snatched up fellow Wobbly and socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs. Equi’s trial was rife with homophobia, and the state devoted considerable resources to securing her conviction. Equi launched a lengthy appeal process that delayed her imprisonment. In early 1919, a shingle workers’ strike in Everett, Wash., boiled over into an armed confrontation between a group of 250 Seattle-based Wobblies who’d boarded a steamer to support the workers and several hundred local vigilantes who’d been recruited by the local sheriff to repel the IWW’s attempt to disembark. Despite her own legal woes, Equi rushed to the scene to care for the Wobbly wounded and dying. It proved to be a last hurrah of sorts; less than a year later, with her appeal dead in the water, Equi was locked up in San Quentin.

Though she told her supporters, “I’m going to prison smiling,” in truth Equi’s time in San Quentin left her profoundly shaken. As her comrades and friends on the outside fought to secure her release, she busied herself writing letters to friends in the movement, sending notes to her daughter, and trying to forget that the FBI was still surveilling her every move. President Wilson commuted her original three-year sentence to 12 months and a day, but her months at San Quentin still felt to Equi like a lifetime. The aggressive patriotism that had bolstered US participation in World War I began to fade, and the political tides began turning in favor of granting amnesty to those who had been imprisoned for wartime dissent.

Equi spent the rest of her life continuing to advocate for free speech and workers’ issues, even as her health declined. She received a full pardon from President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933; while she was pleased to have had her right to vote restored, she still regarded Roosevelt with suspicion, deeming him to be as “slippery as an eel.” Her last recorded appearance as a labor agitator came in 1934, when she ventured out to the Portland docks to support a massive maritime strike involving members of 75 different unions. At 62, Equi walked the picket line, where she was again recognized by many former patients, and made her way down to the union hall to donate $250 (over $5,000 in 2021 currency) to the cause.

The workers won the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike, and remembered her dedication years later. In 1952, after they heard the news of then-80-year-old Equi’s death from renal disease, the dockworkers union passed a resolution in honor of their old friend. They declared Equi to have been a powerful fighter for the working class, who had “braved personal danger and hardships to preserve peace, freedom of speech, and the right of labor to organize.” It’s hard to imagine a more fitting epitaph for this remarkable woman, who spent her life in service to the working class and, when faced with the full force of the US government, refused to bite her tongue.

It’s important to remember Equi now for a multitude of reasons. First, because so few do, and her story deserves to be told. One of the most compelling aspects of that story is how she used her status as a well-paid middle-class professional to materially aid the working class and poor without subscribing to or pushing the reformism or paternalistic liberalism of her white social and economic peers. Her work as a physician of conscience, providing care to anyone who needed it and respecting her patients’ wishes above other laws or social conventions, draws a direct line to today’s tireless reproductive health workers and abortion rights activists. Decades before the widespread queer liberation movement began, she refused to hide or apologize for her queer identity, or to accept second-class status because of whom she loved or how she chose to become a parent. Her allegiance to the IWW and her anarchist political identity showed that she’d found a more egalitarian way to weaponize her privilege, and believed that the consequences of defying an unjust system were worth bearing.

Equi set an example for today’s well-heeled radicals and wavering progressives to follow when using what they have to help those who have less. As Michael Helquist uncovers in his biography of Equi, she said in a 1914 interview with the New Bedford Standard that she saw only two ways to go about aiding the poor, unemployed, and forgotten. “You must either have no money at all, so that nothing matters, or you must have enough to get you out of trouble when you are in it,” she explained. “And you are continually [in trouble] if you fight for the underdog.”

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