1904: Lesbian Love, Anarchy, Parenting, Imprisonment & Reproductive Rights

Welcome back to the Trans & Queer Generations blog! As part of our mission to develop an LGBTQ+ community center in Olympia, we're delving into the history of LGBTQ+ folks in our region.  

Today we're highlighting Harriet Speckart and Marie Equi, a lesbian couple from from the early 1900's. Like much of history, their story contains many elements that are quite relevant today: love, privilege, co-parenting, anarchy, reproductive rights, police harassment, imprisonment due to political beliefs, anti-war activism, homophobia, sexism,  worker rights, and so much more.

Let's start with Harriet Speckart, who was born in Olympia in the late 1800's. She was the niece of Leopold Schmidt,  a German immigrant and the founder of the Olympia Brewing Company.  Speckart was slated to be one of the heirs of the company's fortune, although her family's disfavor towards her sexual orientation meant that she faced a decades-long court battle to have access to that money.

  A young Harriet

A young Harriet

Speckart worked as a medical assistant in Portland in her early 20’s. In 1905 she began working in the office of Dr. Marie Equi.  Equi was one of only about 50 female doctors in Oregon at that time and had a general medical practice with an emphasis on the health concerns of women and children. 

Speckart and Equi soon embarked on a relatively high profile lesbian relationship that lasted for about 14 years.*

I haven’t been able to find much about Speckart’s early life experiences and relationships, but Equi had already had at least one relationship with a woman prior to getting involved with Speckart.  Equi was born to working class Irish and Italian immigrant parents in 1872. She grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and met her first girlfriend, Bessie Holcomb, in high school.

After Equi dropped out of high school and worked for about a year at a textile mill, Holcomb convinced her to move to Oregon, where the couple settled down to homestead.  Equi and Holcomb stayed together from 1892 until 1901, during which time they moved to San Francisco so Equi could go to medical school.  Equi completed her medical training in Portland after they broke up.

Equi and Speckart were relatively open about their relationship during an era when lesbian relationships were often not seen as being legitimate or were met by violent opposition by families, religious institutions, and community members.  They lived together, and presented themselves as a couple.  After they had been together for about 10 years, Equi adopted a baby, Mary, who they co-parented even after they broke up.

According to Wikipedia, "in the 19th century lesbians were often only accepted if they hid their sexual orientation. “Lesbianism” or sex between two woman was not illegal.  Instead, lesbian relationships were often regarded as harmless and incomparable to heterosexual ones unless the participants attempted to assert privileges traditionally enjoyed by men."  Lesbians were often seen as being "mentally ill," and were vulnerable to being incarcerated in an asylum by their families or the criminal justice system.

Equi and Speckart benefited from the privilege conferred on them by Equi’s profession, their education, by being white, and by Speckart's family background, even though her family did their best to shun and disinherit her.  (Speckart’s family was vehemently opposed to their relationship. After sending a private detective to amass information about their activities, her mother launched a widely publicized court battle to block her bequest, asserting that “unnatural” and “manipulative” lesbians could make no legitimate claim to family assets.  The court case took more than a decade to resolve, and Speckart received more than half of her bequest.)

  Marie Equi

Marie Equi

In the early years of their relationship, Equi and Speckart also benefited from Equi's high-profile work.  Equi was lauded as a hero for her volunteer work as a relief doctor in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. This was one of the largest natural disasters of its time -- up to 3,000 people died and over 80% of the city of San Francisco was destroyed.  The federal government couldn’t provide the massive relief needed.  Under temporary military purview, Equi became the first woman to achieve doctor rank in the Army and was awarded a medal for her labor. She received commendations from elected officials, including President Theodore Roosevelt.

The couple advocated reproductive rights. Equi's clinic provided birth control information and abortions at a time when both were illegal. Equi's charged wealthy women more to help cover the costs of her low-income patients.

Equi's activism expanded to included women's suffrage and many other political reforms.  Speckart was engaged in activism and focused more on parenting.  Equi was arrested a few times for participating in rallies at which she distributed birth control information in collaboration with Margaret Sanger, a friend of hers (and later, possibly, a lover.) Although Equi never did jail time because of her abortion and birth control work, the couple, the clinic, and Equi in particular faced harassment by city and state authorities.  {Please continue reading after the break)

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After ten years of sharing a life together, Equi and Speckart adopted an infant, Mary, primarily because Speckart wanted to raise a child. Wikipedia notes that "as an adult, Mary recalled that she had called Speckart “ma” and Equi “da” since everyone called Equi “Doc.” (I wasn't able to find much information about Mary, other than the fact that she later became the first female pilot in Oregon.)

Like many activists then and now, they faced increasing harassment and legal troubles. As this stellar article from The Medium details, 

“But for her open lifestyle and work on Progressive Era reform, one encounter marked a turning point for Equi, after which her community would never view her the same way again. In 1913, she attended a Portland cannery strike where female laborers (and some of her patients) argued for better wages, with some making only five cents per hour. Especially during summer, conditions in the factory were dangerous: Despite the heat, floor bosses locked the doors to keep workers productive and union organizers outside.

One day, the strike turned violent and Equi clashed with counter-protesters. Then she watched as a police officer struck and forcibly dragged a pregnant woman to jail.  It was the last straw. She declared herself an anarchist and a socialist, and publicly supported the radical labor union Industrial Workers of the World.

Days after the strike, she climbed onto a chair in the middle of Portland’s city hall and threatened to “shed blood” if anyone stood in the way of the cause. Her weapon, she snarled, would be a poisoned hat pin to cause a “slow and lingering death.”  

Afterward, the media watched Equi’s every move. She was arrested for poking a police officer with a hat-pin and for distributing birth-control literature. "She marched and led rallies that berated wealthy corporate bosses and public officials."

By 1915, Equi and Speckart were no longer living together, although they continued to be friends and co-parents.

According to the Portland Mercury, in 1916,  Equi also joined the American Union Against Militarism. During a war-preparedness rally in downtown Portland, she unfurled a banner reading "PREPARE TO DIE, WORKINGMEN, J.P. MORGAN & CO. WANT PREPAREDNESS FOR PROFIT", which set off a minor riot and led to her arrest. “

 "In 1918, after the war had ended, Equi was convicted of sedition under the newly-revised Espionage Act for a speech made at the IWW hall opposing World War I.  During her trial, the prosecuting U.S. Attorney submitted evidence of her lesbianism and fiery temper in an attempt to portray her as morally corrupt. Her lawyers were unsuccessful in their attempts to overturn her conviction."  

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Meanwhile, because of the harassment experienced by Speckart and their daughter during this time, Speckart took Mary to live in Seaside, Oregon.

Equi was sentenced to three years in prison plus a $500 fine.

The Medium states, “After Equi spent several months in prison, President Woodrow Wilson shortened her sentence to one year. She spent her time behind bars treating her fellow inmates’ medical ailments and reflecting on a life of unrestrained passion. In a letter to a friend, she pondered whether her “queerness” was a defect. Her friend replied, “You are perfectly sane, perhaps unusually out of the ordinary,” and urged her to never change."

  Equi in San Quentin

Equi in San Quentin

With considerations for good behavior, Equi was released after 10 months. She was 49 by this time, ready to return to her medical practice and live a mostly quiet life.” 

In 1926, Equi invited her close friend Elizabeth Gurley Flynn to live with her in Portland. Both were experiencing health problems, and Equi largely withdrew from activism.

Speckart lived in Seaside until her death from a brain tumor in 1947 at the age of 44. 

One more thing from The Medium:  Equi " only emerged from retirement for a couple of causes or events, including in 1934 when the Portland Police Bureau issued a “Red List.” Equi called the chief of police and threatened to sue the city if her name was not added to the top of the list."  

Equi died in 1952, at age 80, in a Portland nursing home, "just as the Red Scare was cresting.”

There's much to learn from the lives and experiences of Harriet Speckart and Marie Equi, including how much their struggles are similar to and different from the struggles faced by our communities today. We'll get back to their story in a future post.  

In later posts, we'll also highlight another member the family that owned the Olympia Brewing Company, and why the beer was called "Queer Beer" for a while. 


Bryn Houghton