In 2006 the pre-eminent historian and author Lillian Faderman caught me unprepared to answer her perfectly reasonable question – “Why are you writing about her?” – after I mentioned my planned biography of Marie Equi.
Faderman had stopped in San Francisco at the Booksmith bookstore on Haight Street to discuss Gay L.A., A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, the just-released volume she wrote with Stuart Timmons. The store was packed with her fans, and I was eager to listen to someone whose work I had admired for years.
Several of Faderman’s books had greatly informed my understanding of lesbian lives in American history, especially To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America and Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in 20th Century America. Thanks to her research and writing, I was better able to place Marie Equi’s lesbian relationships in a more nuanced political and cultural context and to appreciate her boldness in early 20th century Portland.
Since Faderman’s question several years ago, I worked to better integrate Equi’s outsized personality and controversial protests with her commitment to economic and social justice. Equi engaged the most important issues of her day, and her efforts contribute to our understanding of LGBT history, radical labor politics, the role of women in medicine, reproductive rights, free speech, and peace.
Equi was neither a strident advocate nor a rigid ideologue. Instead her politics were personal, fluid, and eclectic. She operated with a strong sense of right and wrong, aligning herself with groups and causes when they matched her beliefs and objectives. She withstood public opprobrium for her principled stands, and she lost her personal freedom for insisting on her rights as a citizen.
Equi defined herself as a doctor most of all, and that identity lends her greater distinction among her colleagues and other activists. She never let her professional status keep her from protesting in the streets or skirting the law to help her patients.
How Equi fought for justice makes her life story compelling to general readers and scholars interested in the issues of her day and to anyone committed to similar challenges today. That’s why I wrote her biography.
Today Portland celebrates its annual floral extravaganza – the Rose Festival Parade – with inner east side and downtown streets overflowing with flower-bedecked floats, marching bands, horses, and carriages. The City of Roses has been touting itself with the festival since 1907 when the first official Rose Carnival and Fiesta, as it was called then, drew 100,000 people to the parade route. Among the 2 ½ miles of “decorated equipage” – floats, automobiles, and carriages – rode Dr. Marie Equi and her lesbian lover Harriet Speckart.
A year earlier Portlanders had showered Equi with accolades for her courageous and compassionate medical care delivered to sufferers of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 as part of an Oregon relief mission. The U.S. Army had awarded her a medal for exceptional service at a time of crisis.
Dressed in their finery on a perfect June day, Equi and Speckart joined hundreds of other Portlanders who competed for awards in the floral parade. The two women were one of three entries in their class “Carriage and Pair” -- a four-wheeled carriage pulled by two horses. They took their position for a grand loop through the downtown, waving to the cheering onlookers, before gathering with other contestants around the sunken garden of the Exposition grounds. They posed for a giant photograph and awaited inspection by the judges. Later that day winners were announced, and Equi and Speckart won second place and a fifty-dollar prize.
“Successful Rose Fiesta Week Ends,” The Sunday Oregonian, June 23, 1907.
“Portland’s Rose Parade a Triumph,” Morning Oregonian, June 22, 1907. 1.
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