“Queen of the Bolsheviks” and “most hated woman in the northwest” were names earned by American revolutionary doctor and fighter for women’s rights Marie Equi.
Equi was born in 1872 to two immigrant parents in New Bedford in Massachusetts, US. At just eight years old she began working in the city’s textile mills. She escaped this toil and moved with her girlfriend Bess Holcolm to Oregon. During this period Equi trained to be a doctor.
After graduating in 1903 she set up a practice in Portland, Oregon, that specifically catered to the needs of working class women and children. Despite abortion being illegal, Equi risked prosecution to provide this vital service to all women, no matter their social class.
She battled against reactionary ideas around sexuality and never hid that she was a lesbian. Together with her partner of 15 years Harriet Speckart, she adopted a daughter. Equi threw herself into the growing suffrage movement and led the Portland Votes for Women march in 1912.
She was also on the executive board of the Progressive Party—the third party in the US for a short while.
At this time Equi was convinced reforming the system was the best way to win change. Her thinking was transformed in 1913 after joining fruit canning strikers.
The predominantly female workforce at the Oregon Packing Company struck over low wages, backed by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union. In June 1913 around 50 women walked out and were repressed by the police brutally. These events radicalised Equi.
She later wrote, “An Indian girl (Mrs O’Connor) got onto a box to speak. She was about to become a mother in a few months. The mounted police would leap from their horses’ backs, hitting the heads of working men in the crowd. When they pulled that girl from the box—that was where I went wild. All the fighting blood rose in my heart. I got on the box and said things. They took the Indian girl to the courthouse. I followed and got in.”
Following the strike, Equi declared herself a socialist and committed herself to organising with progressive campaigns in Portland. These ranged from action over homelessness, to the rights of unorganised and immigrant workers.
For Equi socialist politics were the tie that bound together the fight for better working conditions, housing and reproductive rights. Equi’s politics also drove her to oppose imperialism as the US prepared to join the First World War.
After being arrested for counter-protesting at a march organised by the pro-war Preparedness Movement in Portland, she returned the next day.
To make sure her message was heard loud and clear she climbed a lamppost and unveiled a banner that read, “Down with imperialist war.” Equi’s anti-war politics brought her into direct conflict with the state. She was charged with sedition by the US government in 1918. She used her trial to rail against the war.
The prosecutor exclaimed, “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.”
Equi spent almost a year in prison, which had a devastating impact on her health and activism. After suffering a heart attack in 1930 Equi died in 1952 at the age of 80.
One of her last acts of resistance was to loudly proclaim that she would still be known as the notorious Queen of the Bolsheviks. With witch-hunts of supposed communists being built by the US state, the Portland police bureau released its own “red list”. Equi demanded that her name be put at the top.
This is the second in a series of columns on radical women to coincide with International Women’s Day on 8 March. Go to bit.ly/RWL2022
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