Notable Oregonians: Marie Equi - Doctor, Activist

Photo of Marie Equi
Marie Equi, 1872-1952. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Marie Equi was born to John Equi and Sarah Mullins in New Bedford, Massachussetts on April 7, 1872.  After working in a textile mill as a teenager, she moved to a homestead near The Dalles, Oregon in 1892 to join her high school girlfriend, Bessie Holcomb. The two maintained a lesbian relationship until 1901 and by one account, Equi was the first well known lesbian in Oregon. Her resolve to fight injustices was illustrated by a local newspaper account in 1893. When Holcomb's employer refused to pay her full teaching salary, Equi horsewhipped the man as he tried to flee his office in The Dalles. Given the man's shady reputation in the community, many locals applauded the attack.

In 1897 Equi studied medicine in California and later finished her studies at the University of Oregon Medical Department in 1903. She established her own medical practice in Portland in 1905. The next year she distinguished herself and received honors while volunteering to give medical aid in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

Equi's activism grew in the early 1900s as she espoused Progressive Era goals such as the eight-hour workday, state support for higher education and prison reform. She worked on several campaigns fighting for women's suffrage in Oregon, culminating in the passage of a ballot measure in 1912. The next year, after witnessing a brutal police response to a cannery strike in Portland, Equi gave up on seeking gradual political reform and adopted a radical outlook. She announced that she was an anarchist and a Radical Socialist as she aligned herself with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Equi illegally helped distribute birth control information as a member of the Portland Birth Control League. In 1916 she was arrested in Portland along with noted national birth control activist Margaret Sanger and others in connection with disseminating Sanger's Family Limitation booklet.

During this time, Equi objected to national war preparedness campaigns in the United States in response to World War I. She accused capitalists of using the war to increase profits and argued that strong nationalism would drag the United States into the war. After the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the government charged and convicted Equi of sedition under the newly expanded provisions of the Espionage Act. After failed attempts at appeals, her sentenced was commuted by President Woodrow Wilson from three years to a year and a day.  In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt pardoned her and other Americans convicted of wartime sedition.

After her release from San Quentin State Prison in California in 1921, Equi returned to her medical practice in Portland. She suffered a heart attack in 1930 and sold her practice. In later years, she led a quiet retired  life, with occasional visits from radical and labor leaders who honored her efforts on behalf of social justice causes.

Equi died in Portland on July 13, 1952. She was eulogized by her activist friend, Julia Ruuttila, as "a real friend of the have-nots of this world."

(Sources: National Park Service | Oregon Encyclopedia | National Library of Medicine | Wikipedia)

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