Marie Equi’s journey to “Barbary Lane,” however, was all too fraught with real danger, conflict and suffering. She struggled with being an outsider most of her life. She was the daughter of immigrant parents; her father was Italian, her mother, Irish. The family was snubbed for not being enough of either community. Equi’s family was working-class, and she had to drop out of high school to help support her six siblings. She worked in the gritty textile mills until she could take it no longer. Her plight was even more precarious since she was uninterested in marriage as a means of financial support; besides she was attracted to women. It was a time, in the 1880s and 1890s, when the word “lesbian” was neither known nor used.
Equi fled to Oregon to live along the Columbia River on a homestead with her girlfriend. She studied medicine on her own, and then bucked the trend to enter medical school when few women did. She graduated in Portland in 1903, and she became known as a passionate advocate for social and economic justice. That’s how Equi got in trouble. She fought for woman suffrage, she distributed birth control information when it was illegal, and she provided outlawed abortions. She marched with jobless workers, picketed at labor strikes, and fought with police. When the U.S. joined World War I, Equi objected to its exploitative, capitalist motives. For speaking out against the war, the federal government charged Equi with sedition. She was convicted and then sentenced to three years in prison at San Quentin, starting October 19, 1920.
Ten months later at San Quentin, “Equi collected her possessions changed into the new clothes and hat provided by the state, and said goodbye to her cellmate “KT” and the other women. …The other inmates cheered her release, and she vowed not to forget them. She completed the required paperwork, took the five dollars cash allotted each discharged prisoner, and walked with guards through the gates. There one of her cousins waited to take her to the ferry and leave San Quentin behind.”
From the San Francisco dock, Equi was driven to her refuge on Macondray Lane, not the fictitious Barbary Lane where transgender landlady Anna Madrigal tended to her family of seekers and supposed misfits featured in “Tales of the City.” (The actual pathway was named in 1912 to honor the pioneer San Francisco merchant Frederick W. Macondray). Instead of Anna Madrigal, Charlotte Anita Whitney welcomed Marie Equi into her mid-block one-bedroom apartment.
Whitney was from an aristocratic family in Oakland, across San Francisco Bay. Like Equi, she was unmarried and had worked as a suffragist before becoming a political radical convinced that fundamental economic and social change was needed in the country. Whitney and Equi had known each other for nearly ten years. They were confidants, perhaps lovers, and they supported each other in the ways independent women must. Two months before Equi’s release, Whitney had taken an apartment on the wooded, well-tended walkway lined by a serpentine rock outcropping on the south side and houses and apartments on the north – all situated high on San Francisco’s eclectic Russian Hill.
From the windows of Whitney’s home, Equi could scan the Marin County headlands across the bay. San Quentin Prison, mercifully, did not mar the view. After months in close concrete quarters, she was just a few steps away from the flowers, shrubs, and trees of the hideaway lane. No longer confined with strangers, she spent her days and nights with an intimate companion of her own choosing, and she tried to make sense of her prison ordeal and what lay ahead.
Macondray Lane for Marie Equi, and Barbary Lane for Mary Ann Singleton. One real walkway and one imagined path. Both held the promise of what so many of us seek then and now -- a safe home and companions of our own choosing.
If you’re new to “Tales of the City” by Armistead Maupin, treat yourself to a romp through San Francisco by reading all eight books in the series. Don’t miss the excellent and most recent web miniseries of the same name that premiered on Netflix June 7, 2019.
For the life of the fiercely independent Marie Equi, see “Marie Equi, Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions,” 2015, Oregon State University Press, Michael Helquist. A Stonewall Honor Book. Available at independent bookstores and online. At Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Marie-Equi-Radical-Politics-Passions/dp/087071595X