Dr. Marie Equi: Physician, Activist, Woman
By Kayla Smith
Dr. Marie Equi was a prominent physician and activist in Oregon in the 1910s-1920s, known for her fiery spirit and strong will. Though unusual for the time, “Equi openly enjoyed associations with other women that would readily be called ‘lesbian relationships’ today” as stated by Equi’s biographer, Michael Helquist, in an article for the Oregon Encyclopedia. Equi was one of close to one hundred female physicians in Oregon, starting her own practice in Portland where she was known to primarily treat working-class women and children, frequently free of charge. Equi even adopted her own daughter from one of her clients, a service she often aided in when abortion was not an option. While Equi’s medical career is inspiring, it is her history in activism for which she is well known.
Equi was known to fight for a wide variety of causes from prison reform to reproductive rights, becoming an icon of Progressive Era activism (Oregon Encyclopedia). After a hostile engagement with police during a strike in Portland, Equi adopted anarchism, vehemently believing that gradual political reform was not enough to achieve justice for workers. She most notably supported the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), taking part in the criticism of Portland’s civic leaders for their oppression of the working class. Equi took action beyond her protesting, providing food and shelter for the unemployed, distributing birth control information, and providing abortions to women of all classes. She also strongly opposed US involvement in World War I, and in 1918, at the height of the anti-Bolshevik hysteria, the federal government employed the Sedition Act to charge Equi with sedition for her anti-war speeches. According to an article in The Oregon Daily Journal in June of 1918, Equi violated at least four provisions of Section 3 of the Espionage Act, and had been quite vocal in her distaste for the war for quite some time. Her feisty addresses concerning the war had gone ignored until one fateful night when she allegedly took it a bit too far.
Equi understood her trial was likely to be unjust from the beginning. With a jury of only men, many of whom did not reside within the Portland area, the odds were not in her favor. The prosecution took their aim, accusing her of being unpatriotic in nature and defaming those who fought for the country. As stated in Michael Helquist’s book Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions, Equi’s opposition to war preparedness before the enactment of the Sedition Act was a key component in the development of the prosecution’s case even though such commentary was not yet illegal. According to Helquist, Equi’s defense was strong with prominent and reliable witnesses, her own testimony being quite strong against the leading prosecutor, Bert Haney. However, it proved to not be enough against the hostile and homophobic nature of assistant prosecutor Barnett Goldstein’s closing statement, leaving her sentenced to three years in prison and a $500 charge.
Equi appealed her case all the way up to the Supreme Court to no avail, and yet, she did not give up there, writing to President Wilson’s secretary for aid in obtaining presidential clemency. Her friends and allies flooded the White House with letters and telegrams in support of clemency and Portlanders sent a petition for a presidential pardon for Equi. Yet, this overwhelming support proved unsuccessful as Equi was sent off to serve her remaining time of one year and a day at San Quentin California State Prison on October 17, 1920 as reported by the Oregon Daily Journal. Equi spent her time in prison being an exemplary inmate, writing often to her friends and family. Finally, on August 9, 1921, Equi was released on good behavior.
A few months before Equi’s release, the case of multi-millionaire Henry Albers broke into the media stream. Albers and Equi had nearly identical cases, both charged with the same thing, both fighting against the invalid evidence used against them, and both being denied when they appealed to circuit court of appeals. However, according to the Oregon Journal, when Albers appealed to the Supreme Court, the US solicitor general appeared before the court, admitting that Albers’ previous utterances should have never been admitted as evidence and confirming the Department of Justice had made a mistake. Albers was able to walk free while Equi sat behind bars for the same crime. Albers was a rich and influential man who had everything the world could offer him; he was someone who was immensely favored by the justice system. Equi was a loud woman who had influence over the lower classes and was a danger to the very system that condemned her. Albers was given a favorable sentence because he was the epitome of what the justice system loved while Equi was convicted of a far worse fate because she was an angry woman.
Life after incarceration was tamer for Equi as she had grown ill in prison, though she had not quite given up activism. She pushed for prison reform and vowed to never forget the women she had encountered during her time in prison (Helquist, Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions). She continued her medical practice through the 1920s, spending a greater portion of her time providing abortions and continuing to support the birth control movement. In 1930, she had to give up her medical practice due to poor health and dedicated the majority of her time to enjoying life with her daughter until she died in 1952.
About the Author
Kayla Smith participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Spring 2023 Oregon Women’s History course as a student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University. Kayla is a Psychology major and Art and Design minor who has a deep passion for helping people in any way she can.
“The Confessions of Errors,” Oregon Journal, April 29, 1921, 10.
“Dr. Marie Equi Escorted to Her Cell,” Oregon Journal, October 16, 1920, 1.
“Dr. Marie Equi is Accused of Espionage” Oregon Journal, June 30, 1918, 1.
Evenson, Tania Hyatt, “Dr. Marie Equi’s Office”, Oregon History Project, 2002. https://www.oregonhistoryproject.org/articles/historical-records/dr-marie-equi39s-office/#.ZGKTxuzMIRU
Helquist, Michael. “Marie Equi (1872-1952).” Oregon Encyclopedia. https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/equi_marie_1872_1952_/#.ZGKTSOzMIRU
Helquist, Michael. Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions. Corvallis: Oregon State Press, 2015.
Hodges, Adam. “Industrial Workers of the World.” Oregon Encyclopedia. https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/industrial_workers_of_the_world_iww_/#.ZGKTZuzMIRU
Jelsing, Nadine. “Physician, Lesbian, Radical Labor Activist – Passions of Portland’s Dr. Marie Equi.” Oregon Public Broadcasting. March 13, 2023. https://www.opb.org/article/2023/03/13/portland-oregon-history-dr-marie-equi-lesbian-labor-activist/
Jelsing, Nadine. Marie Equi. Portland: Oregon Experience Series, Oregon Public Broadcasting with the Oregon Historical Society, 2023.
“Women Who Inspire Us: Marie Equi, M.D.,” Center for Women’s Health, Oregon Health & Science University. https://www.ohsu.edu/womens-health/women-who-inspire-us-marie-equi-md