The Rebellious Soul of Dr Marie Equi

“Prepare to die, workingmen,”

Those were the words on Marie Equi’s protest banner “J.P. Morgan & Co. want preparedness for profit. Thou shalt not kill” it concluded. Equi was protesting the United States’ involvement in World War I at a preparedness parade in Portland, Oregan in 1916. She was arrested for desecrating an American flag after she tore one up at the parade.

440px-Dr_Equi_assistant_with_patient.jpgMarie Equi was a medical doctor at a time when it was very rare for a woman to go to medical school. Equi finished her degree at the University of Oregon and opened up a family practice that specialized in women and children. She was devoted to providing care to underserved patients and charged her patients on a sliding scale based on income. The price she charged for her wealthier patients allowed her to take care of the poorest women and children at her practice for free. She distributed birth control pamphlets with Margaret Sanger and regularly provided abortions at a time when both were illegal.

In the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, she volunteered as a relief doctor and organized a group of doctors and nurses to travel from Portland to San Frascio to help. The relief effort was overseen by the US Army and as a result, she became the first woman to achieve the rank of a doctor in the Army. Her work in helping take care of the wounded in San Francisco earned her an award from President Theodore Roosevelt.

Equi developed a close relationship with birth control advocate Margaret Sanger through correspondences. They first met when Sanger visited Portland to give a lecture in 1916. They were arrested that year for defending three men who were caught distributing Sanger’s birth control pamphlets. They continued their relationship through letters and Equi even helped edit some of Sanger’s writings. Sanger referred to Equi as a “rebellious soul”.

Her activism went beyond medical care. She was an activist for peace, labor reform and women’s rights. Equi was an outspoken member of the International Workers of the World, giving speeches in the Portland area on in support for better working hours and higher wages.  She worked in several campaigns to secure the vote for women and she was one of the first women in Oregan to register to vote.

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Dr Equi and he daughter Mary

Equi was a lesbian who had multiple long-term relationships in her life in a time when being open about her sexuality would have risked violence to herself and loved ones. The primary relationship in her life was with Harriet Frances Speckart, they were a couple for more than a decade. The two women adopted a three-week-old infant in 1915, who they raised together. Marie had signed the adoption papers but Harriet provided most of the homecare. Their child was named Mary (sometimes called Mary Jr.) and she called Harriet “Ma” and Marie “Doc. After Harriet died in 1927 Mary lived with Equi and other family members. Equi took Mary along to the rallies she attended. Mary recalled Equi telling her “If the police come, you run.” Mary would grow up to become the first female pilot in Oregon.

In 1918,  at the same time she and Sanger were passing out illegal birth control pamphlets, Equi was convicted under the Sedition Act for speaking against U.S. involvement in World War I. She was sentenced to a three-year term at San Quentin State Prison plus a $500 fine. Equi, at the age of 49, was released from prison for good behavior after serving ten months.

On December 24, 1933, FDR pardoned her and other Americans convicted of wartime sedition.

In 1952 Dr Equi passed away at the age of 80. Her obituary ran in newspapers across the country, including in Portland, New Bedford, Massachusetts where she was born, and in the New York Times. Julia Ruuttila, a friend of Equi, described her as “a woman of passion and conviction and a real friend of the have-nots of this world.”

To learn about more women activists check out the Women’s Museum of California digital exhibit


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