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Marie Equi: Her Fight for Women’s Equality

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2017 at 9:48 pm


Article originally published in Boston Spirit Magazine, Dec. 2016.

Marie Equi wasn’t supposed to amount to much. Born in 1872 to immigrant parents in New Bedford, a Yankee city on the decline, Marie’s future was limited at best. There were two routes to a decent life for most immigrant girls then: marriage or education; Marie was not a promising candidate for either. Her teachers thought her intelligent but unruly and she had never shown the slightest interest in the opposite sex.

Under these circumstances, Marie looked forward to a harsh life in the textile mills and a mundane home life living with her parents and/or siblings. But that’s not how it turned out. Not at all.

Marie Equi went on to become a homesteader in the Far West, a medical doctor, out lesbian, labor activist, suffragist, and one of the most significant reformers of her era. How did it happen and why has such a great American story not been told? Fortunately, public historian Michael Helquist’s recent book Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions rescues her from oblivion. Equi now takes her place in the pantheon of LGBTQ heroes.

As a child, Marie suffered from tuberculosis which got so bad, she was sent to family friends in Florida to recover. She was a good student at New Bedford High School, forming her first significant female attachment with a teacher, Mary E. Austin. Austin may have been the first person outside of her family to sense Marie’s dynamic combination of energy, restless intelligence, and charisma. But like other working class girls, Marie was soon forced to drop out of high school to work in the textile mills where she experienced firsthand the dehumanizing drudgery of the work. She also saw how unsafe it was, as the factory air was so thick with floating cotton fibers that workers sometimes vomited cotton balls at the end of their shifts.

But Marie’s capacity for friendship was about to save her. Betsy Bell Holcomb was a high school friend from a well-off New Bedford family, who had been impressed with Marie’s intelligence and charm. Betsy was a Wellesley College student who took Marie on as a project and was determined to see her get a chance to attend Wellesley, too. But after a stint at Northfield Seminary for Girls (now Northfield Mount Hermon School) to prepare for college, Marie was forced to return to New Bedford as she could not afford the tuition. At 19, Marie Equi was at a crossroads.

It must have shocked Betsy Bell Holcomb’s family when she dropped out of Wellesley before graduating and moving to Oregon to homestead a piece of land. But that is exactly what she did and before long, she wrote to Marie, urging her to come out West and join her. Without hesitating, Marie joined Betsy in The Dalles, Oregon in September 1882.

At first, life was good on The Dalles, which was a town at the end of the Oregon Trail. The women lived as a couple and attempted to make a go of it as farmers. Betsy supplemented their income by teaching in town. Early on, it was clear that had both a fiery temper and a strong sense of justice. Betsy Bell Holcomb had taught at the local private academy run by a shady character named O.D. Taylor. When the end of the school year came, Holcomb had still not received her final salary of $100. The women went to Taylor’s office and demanded payment. Equi even threatened to horse whip Taylor in the middle of the street if payment was not made. A fight ensued and Taylor was restrained by men on the street while Equi “reigned blows” on him. Most onlookers cheered as Taylor’s reputation as a double dealer was well known.

Equi’s relationship with Holcomb combined with her relocation to The Dalles had given her a new-found confidence. She was no longer just an immigrant’s daughter. It was around this time, that she decided to become a medical doctor.

Equi established her medical practice in Portland, Oregon in 1905. She soon distinguished herself as a doctor, especially for women, for whom she performed a range of services, including abortions in a clean, safe setting. Oregon was a center of the Progressive and Suffragist movements. Equi soon met Abigail Scott Duniway, the leader of the Oregon Suffragist movement. Though some activists thought Duniway moved too slowly and quietly, Equi admired her and the two became friends.

When the San Francisco Earthquake struck in 1906, Equi, along with many other Portland medical professionals rushed to the stricken city to help in relief efforts. Her reputation as a humanitarian grew when her work in caring for a dozen pregnant women, new mothers, and babies, in the immediate aftermath of earthquake hit the newspapers. It is entirely possible that the first babies born in San Francisco after the earthquake were delivered by Marie Equi.

Equi soon met and fell in love with a young wealthy women, Harriet Speckart. The relationship did not sit well with Speckart’s mother.  Equi became embroiled in a legal case involving Speckart’s inheritance. Her mother charged that Harriet was under the spell of Marie Equi. Despite her mother’s disapproval, Speckart was Equi’s longest relationship and they eventually adopted a child named Mary. Speckart did most of the child rearing, while Equi’s medical work covered the expenses.

Other women also figured in Marie’s life and she never hid or denied the nature of the relationships. Even when Equi was called “mannish” or “an unsexed woman,” she never backed down.

Over the years, Equi never forgot her early life in the New Bedford mills. She championed a variety of causes including the eight-hour day,  the right to organize a union, and an end to child labor. But her primary cause was women’s suffrage. In 1912, Equi saw Oregon women gain the right to vote when a state referendum passed 52%-48%. It was the sixth Oregon referendum on Suffrage, the previous five having failed.

On the eve of World War I, Equi denounced American involvement. She was charged with sedition and spent ten months in prison at San Quentin State Prison. Her daughter Mary said that her mother was never the same after the imprisonment. Free speech was a protected right only if you agreed with the war effort.

At the end of her life, when she checked into a hospital in 1950, Equi received 13 red roses from local longshoremen who remembered when she had spoken out for them. Her friend Julia Ruutttila wrote of Equi: “Fighter and friend to valiant end/ our champion to revere and defend.” Equi died in 1952.

Recently, in thinking about Equi’s life, the book’s author, Michael Helquist said, “Lots of people struggle with obstacles that leave them feeling discouraged and alone. I hope they recognize in Marie Equi another outsider…(who) made progress by not giving up.”

F. Holland Day: the Boston Art Photographer History Forgot

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2016 at 11:07 pm

Fred Holland Day

February 1882

South Station, Boston

If seventeen year-old Fred Holland Day (1864-1933) had a hero in this world, it was Oscar Wilde. They both loved  the poetry of John Keats, whose early death heightened the romance of his work. They both believed in beauty for its own sake and that art needed no moralistic message or advanced artistic technique to justify it. And both were enthralled by the male form. How was Fred to know that on a wintry Boston afternoon in February 1882, he would meet his idol in South Station? Casting himself in the third person, Day wrote about the chance meeting ten years later:

“…he approached the Unapproachable, and …requested the Sun’s God his autograph. The Great One looked down upon the youth with that sunny smile so often and cruelly maligned as ‘incubating,’ and taking the pencil, slowly traced his name in calligraphy rather more curious than his appearance. The gates swung open and the throng (along with Wilde) passed through.”

Wilde was in Boston to give a talk. His reputation for delivering insults wrapped in literary velvet had preceded him. But this time the joke was on Wilde. On that winter evening, 60 Harvard students came to hear him speak at the Music Hall on Winter Street (now the Orpheum) in downtown Boston. The Lowell Daily Courier reported that “all were in knee-breeches and black stockings.” Each carried a sunflower and affected a far-off gaze. They were mocking Wilde and he knew it. The Harvard Crimson reported that at one point, Wilde glared at them saying, “Save me from my disciples.”


Day plays the role of Christ in The Last Three Words

Just ten years after the chance meeting in South Station, Day would sit in Wilde’s London study, tea cup in hand, not as a nervous acolyte but an equal. He’d become a leading book publisher, collector, and art photographer. He was well-known in art circles on both sides of the Atlantic. Day’s rise was fast but his most productive years were no more than a decade (1895-1905).

In recent years, Day’s reputation has improved but only after decades of silence among art historians. Why did this seminal figure in art photography and book publishing, sink into obscurity for so long? Another question suggested but never answered in Day’s biographies since his death: was he gay? Just who was this artist, obscured by time yet central to the history of photography?

Author Estelle Jussim has called Day “a slave to beauty” but if he was, it was the only thing he was enslaved to. Day was born a wealthy Boston Brahmin and lived a life of wide choices and free thinking. The mild reticence expected of Bostonians of his class was mostly ignored by Day in favor of the personal expression that made his work seem scandalous then and groundbreaking now. Still, he kept his sexuality to himself. Day may not have wanted to make the same mistake his idol, Oscar Wilde, had made, the one that ultimately cost the playwright’s life.

Fred’s father, Lewis Day, a prominent Brahmin businessman, owned cattle ranches and leather companies. Although he was successful, Lewis Day passed none of his interest in industry to his son. The senior Day was often called away to tend his business enterprises, allowing Fred’s devoted mother, Anna, to raise him. When he was around Fred, Lewis Day was supportive and warm. As the only child, he received all of his parent’s attention. While some historians have called his mother “domineering,” others took note of her unusually progressive attitudes towards immigrants and African-Americans, which she passed on to her son. Anna took the democratic teachings of her Universalist faith seriously and her son inherited her world-view to great effect in his later work.

The Day’s home in Norwood, 23 miles southwest of Boston, was the center of their lives and always a touchstone for Fred. The family had an apartment on Boylston Street in Boston and Fred would later have studios there and in London but Norwood was always home.

In 1879, Fred’s mother, Anna became sick and was ordered to travel to Denver to recover in the fresh mountain air. Fred, a teenager, accompanied her. In Denver, he met Americans who were Asian and Latino for the first time, broadening his perspective. He purchased Chinese painting supplies and became fascinated by Asian-American art, which became a lifelong passion.

With his mother recovered, Fred returned to Boston, where he enrolled in the Chauncy Hall School (then located in Boston, now called Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School in Waltham). Fred was popular and his love of art and the artistic life was tolerated among his fellow upper-class peers. In his senior year, he embarked with fellow students on a European tour which included England, Ireland, Switzerland, Italy and France. He sent articles on his travels back home to the Norwood Review. Upon graduation, Day won a gold medal for best scholarship in English literature. This would be the end of his formal education.

Instead of following most of his friends to Harvard, Day took a desk job in a book publishing company at the urging of his father, who thought his son’s high-flung artistic interests needed leveling. The working world did not alter Fred’s love of art or beauty but he did put the experience to good use when he later founded his own publishing house, Copeland and Day.

At 22, Day began taking photographs, mostly of the homes of local authors, thereby combining his two passions: books and photography. His early pictures were taken in dim gaslight which required his subjects to hold their poses for long stretches. The availability of electric light was not widespread until after World War I but wealthy families began using electricity for lighting as early as the 1890s. The evolution in lighting from gas to electricity influenced Day and other early photographers, opening the way to Pictorialism, which created satiny, dark, photographs.

When Day was 22 in 1886, he met Louise Guiney, who would quickly become his closest friend. They shared a love of literature and art, especially the poetry of John Keats. Though he published just 54 poems in his short life, Keats was a beacon to young romantics like Day and Guiney even though he had died 70 years before. Day and Guiney were part of the fin-de-siècle generation who reacted against the growth of sprawling, impersonal, cities, unchecked capitalism, and the bulldozing of forests. They wanted to reclaim what they saw as a more spiritual past when the accrual of money was the not main object of life. Over time, Day’s less orthodox religious outlook allowed him to experiment with art photography in ways Louise Guiney, a staunch Roman Catholic, could not always accept. An example of Day’s lighter attitude towards religion was a plaque he mounted over a door to his Beacon Hill apartment: ”This is the Day the Lord Hath Made.”

Another pivotal relationship in Day’s life was his friendship and business partnership with Herbert Copeland, described by Jussim as “a well-educated, debonair, sophisticated young bachelor,” though other accounts mark him as ineffectual and a drunk. They shared an interest in books and art. But there were marked differences, too. Copeland was probably not as smart as Day, nor as hard working.  Still, their partnership created one of the most respected publishing houses at the time. Between 1893 and the year it folded in 1899, Copeland and Day published about a hundred books by authors that included Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Later, Copeland became an alcoholic, often borrowing money from Day. Like Day, Copeland was almost certainly gay. He had relationships with men that he called “intimate.” In a letter to Day, complaining about a relationship with a married man, Copeland wrote, “I was desperately taken with him at first sight, and deliberately laid myself out to catch him…before I knew he was married.”

Day was famous for befriending young men from the slums of Boston. The most famous of these was poet Kahlil Gibran. He was generous financially and by all accounts, treated Gibran well. Another young man Day met was an Italian immigrant living in Chelsea whom Day used in his photograph, St. Sebastian. The boy was well aware of his good looks and the effect they had on both Day and his old friend Herbert Copeland who also knew him. When Copeland visited him, the boy’s mother, who did not approve of her son posing for the men said icily, “It’s very good of you Mr. Copeland to take such an interest in (my son).” The boy interrupted saying, “Nobody can help taking an interest in me, can they Mr. Copeland?”

In The Seven Last Words of Christ, Day uses himself as the model of a crucified Jesus with “Roman soldiers” looking on from below. He starved himself over several months to look the part. He purchased garments that matched those from the period. Even his father, on business in Florida, promised to buy large nails for the cross, if he could find them.

It’s difficult to know how to take the image. Is it a reverential reenactment of one of the most sacred moments in Christianity? Or is it an attempt at an homo-eroticized version of a central event in a religion that had condemned queer people? One suspects it is a little of both. Adrienne Lundgren, a senior photograph conservator in the Conservation Division of the Library of Congress, thinks it is not a reenactment of the crucifixion of Christ but a kind of performance art intended to elicit a response from the viewer. In short, it is art, not history or religion.

The New York pioneering art photographer, gallery owner, and art critic, Alfred Stieglitz, began noticing Day’s photographic work in the middle 1890s. Steiglitz had founded The Camera Club and turned its newsletter, Camera Notes into the most influential publication on photography at that time. In some ways, Camera Notes took the place of the old art academies that dictated which artist’s works would be selected or left out of annual shows. If your work was in Camera Notes, you were good. In 1903, Camera Notes evolved into a full-fledged magazine called Camera Work, which was the authority on photography until it folded in 1917. Both Stieglitz and Day were proponents of photography as art. But Day was not as interested in following the methods of great painters as was the New York group of photographers that surrounded Stieglitz. When Stieglitz copied Cubist painters by making Cubist photographs, Day ignored it.

Perhaps it is inevitable that Stieglitz and Day would become competitors. When Day felt shut out by Stieglitz, he responded in kind with icy silence. This would prove costly. When Day refused to have his work featured in the first issue of Camera Work, it spelled the end of their relationship and may have been the worst professional move of Day’s life. He could not have known the status that Camera Work would earn through the years as the arbiter of great Pictorialist work. This is the major reason why Day is too little remembered today. As Priscilla Frank pointed out in a 2012 Huffington Post article, before artists Cindy Sherman’s multiple personalities or Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic images, there was Fred Day. It is long since time to base the position of Day’s work on more than his exclusion from one journal over 100 years ago.

By 1925, both of Fred’s parents and his close friends, Louise Guiney and Herbert Copeland had died. Now, Day spent long stretches of time upstairs in his bedroom at the house in Norwood. His last years were spent in increasing seclusion. Fred Holland Day died at 69, on November 12, 1933.

Was Day a gay man? We can’t know for certain but most everything points to it. He was unmarried and aside from his chaste friendship with Louise Guiney, all of his important adult relationships were with men. He used attractive young men in his photographs and befriended young men from Boston’s slums throughout his life. We know that his business partner, Herbert Copeland shared his interest in young men. His literary heroes were Oscar Wilde and Honoré de Balzac. The former carried on a public affair with a young man which was his ruin and the latter included gay characters in his realist fiction.

The 1890s were not a time for public pronouncements on sexual desire. But that didn’t mean Day was without desire.  Maybe it was better, more artistic, to remain silent. After all, his hero John Keats, wrote: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter…”


On the Cusp of Liberation

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2015 at 12:41 pm

Sporters bar, 1960s. Bob McHenry (sunglasses) and friends enjoy an evening out in Boston. Image: History Project.

LGBT Voices From the 1960s

In memory, each decade has its own gallery of pictures. Think 1960s: long-haired protesters on Boston Common, young women dancing with flowers in their hair, and across the river, the sound of drums and the sweet scent of reefer on Sunday afternoons on Cambridge Common. These images flash like news footage that gets a little grainier with each passing year.

The fragile blend of euphoria, idealism, drugs and death, which defined the hippy period, was not very long. By the time the flower children arrived in San Francisco’s Haight–Ashbury neighborhood in the Summer of Love, the decade was more than half over. Much of what we associate with the 1960s occurred in the following decade.
For the first three years – until November 22, 1963 – the prevailing ethos was still button-down and conformist. The disillusion that had boiled beneath mainstream notice for years was unleashed on that afternoon when President Kennedy was assassinated. The nation mourned its president but if the majority white, heterosexual culture had known what was coming, it might have mourned its unquestioned dominance, too.

Imagine: an entire era ended in one day and nobody knew it.

For some, this new moment meant unwanted turmoil; for others, including queer people, it was a chance for liberation. Like other members of their generation, Bill Conrad and Helaine Zimmerman took tentative steps out of the closet early on, but by the end of the decade, they had found a community. In 1969, the Stonewall Uprising was the seed that fell on a ground made fertile by people like them.

Freshly discharged from the Army in 1961, Bill Conrad, returned to a welcome-home party in Somerville thrown by his family. At 22, lean, with dark Irish looks, Conrad should have been excited about entering gay life in Boston. But he knew no gay people in his hometown and felt lost. In Berlin, Conrad had come out, dating “a beautiful German boy.” He had also made a life-long friend of another gay soldier, Carl Banks, who had more experience in the gay world. When Conrad was about to be discharged, he asked Banks how he could break into gay life when he got back home to Boston. “There were no (gay) newspapers back then. No list of gay bars. I knew nothing of gay life in Boston. Carl told me to just go downtown where the department stores were and find a gay man. I was to follow him because sooner or later, he would go to a gay bar and I would be there to see where it was.”

The morning came, and Conrad headed downtown. Sure enough, he found his man. “This queen must have hit every department store in town. I was following him in and out of stores. He was walking with all these shopping bags down Cambridge Street and entered what looked like another store, but when I got up close, it had no name.” It took Conrad a few minutes to get up the nerve to walk through the nameless door. Once inside, he knew it was a gay bar. “It was Sporters and the bartender was Bob White,” who went on to run and own several bars in town. Conrad was home. A few years later, White hired Conrad and he worked at Sporters for many years. Over the next 30 years, Conrad was a fixture in the Boston bar scene working and managing at Sporters, 1270, Buddies, and Bobby’s.

In the early 1960s, Sporters was subject to police raids every couple of months. “They’d come in and line everyone up against the wall. The youngest cop would question us, ask for IDs and call us “faggot” and other names. It was scary. If you didn’t have ID, they’d arrest you and put your name in the paper.” For many men, this meant being fired from their jobs and even evicted from their homes.

Helaine Zimmerman, a social worker in the Boston area for 50 years, spoke to the History Project in 1995 about living in Boston as a lesbian in the early 1960s. (Zimmerman was the aunt of Boston Spirit Magazine publisher, David Zimmerman. She passed away in 2013.) In 1959, Zimmerman spent a year in Greenwich Village, where she danced, made out with girls, and partied all night. But intimacy with women never went further. There was a line that she was reluctant to cross. “I figured that if I could keep it contained, I was safe. Everybody that I knew who was out, was saying ‘if you’re straight, try to be straight.’ In those days, even some out lesbians, according to Zimmerman, saw being gay as “a terrible lifestyle. They just didn’t see any future in it at all.”

In 1960, Zimmerman returned to Boston to get serious about her career and life. “I decided I would get back on the right track. I was on the wrong track in the Village, hanging out with women, going to the bars until five o’clock in the morning. I got a job at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.” Since she didn’t know any gay people in Boston, Zimmerman figured the “lesbian stage” of her life was over. For a few months, things went as planned; Zimmerman settled in at her job and began dating some men she knew in high school.

“One night, I went to the Charles Playhouse with a friend and we were upstairs in a lounge and I saw people walking downstairs and they were gay. And I (thought) this is interesting, so I excused myself and said I was going to the ladies room. I went downstairs and opened the door and there were all these ‘Mafia’ guys standing there. I said I just wanted to take a peek. Well, that was the Midtown. There were hundreds of gay people in there and I thought, now I am really sunk. I knew I’d go back. I went back the next night.”

The Midtown welcomed men and women. Zimmerman described the lesbian scene as “very defined, either you were a butch or a fem.” She did not really identify with either but when she was confronted by a “butch” who asked what she was, Zimmerman said, “Well, since I have shorter hair then my friend, I guess I am butch.” According to Zimmerman, working class and poor women were more likely to classify into the strict roles of butch or fem then middle or upper class women. Since Helaine and her friends did not fit into either category, “the butches called us ‘the Beacon Hill crowd’ because they didn’t understand us.”

Like Sporters, police sometimes paid a visit to the Midtown. “They used to flash the lights in the bar when the police came in. You had to switch partners (on the dance floor) in one second, woman to man. It was always touch and go about the cops coming in and raiding the place.”

By the late 1960s, the sheer number of Baby Boom queer people made them more visible on Boston’s streets and clubs. At Sporters, the police raids stopped and it became the place to be. Recalls Conrad, “Sporters was perfectly positioned to attract the gay college crowd. MIT and Harvard were a few stops away on the Red Line. It was packed seven nights a week. It was really my home during those years… For me 1965-75, were the best years at Sporters.”

By 1964, Helaine Zimmerman had moved away from her family in Newton to an apartment on Beacon Street. It was at this time that she had her first romantic relationship with a woman. It lasted five years. “I still didn’t tell most people. I never told my parents (that I was gay).” Zimmerman did not come out at work until 1987. “People don’t realize it was a very different time.”

In the mid to late 1960s, Zimmerman and her friends went to Vicki’s and Cavana’s, two lesbian bars on Tremont Street with tough reputations. “Vicki would sit on a high stool and survey the crowd for troublemakers. The customers could get out of hand in a hurry. At the drop of a hat, they’d throw a beer bottle.”

In looking back, Zimmerman wondered what ever happened to the “butches” she met in the bars. “When Somewhere opened, I thought I’d see them. But I never saw them in there and never saw them in the Saint.”

House parties were an important place for socializing in the 1960s, especially for lesbians. They offered fun without the scrutiny and potential danger of the bars. Zimmerman attended parties hosted by women in Dorchester, Jamaica Plain and Cambridge. My friend Alice would say, ‘I’m having a party with all the fags and the dykes…’ and we’d just dance and it was hilarious. There was a real camaraderie …there wasn’t a separation between the men and the women. I loved it.”

Zimmerman missed the old days when people danced instead of dined. After a pause, she said, “the world got more serious, don’t you think?”