Radical Figures in Health History: Dr. Marie Equi

Posted on 10.17.2012 by Kelly

I first read about Dr. Marie Equi in a book I bought this summer, Revolutionary Women: A Book of Stencils, which awesomely describes her as “an anarchist, a supporter of the women's suffrage movement, an illicit abortion provider, an activist fighting for working-class rights, and an open lesbian.” I decided to check out a zine biography of her life called Queen of the Bolsheviks: The Hidden History of Dr. Marie Equi by Nancy Krieger, which I later found out was originally published in the journal Radical America and is available online here. Most of the information from this post was taken from this essay, and I would highly recommend it.

Marie Equi was a contemporary of Emma Goldman, born in 1872 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Her mother was originally from Ireland and her father had immigrated from Italy; both parents brought their experiences under one form of occupation or another in teaching Marie to “abhor absolutism, monarchy and oppression” (*Queen of the Bolsheviks*). Marie started working in the textile mills of New Bedford at age 8 and came down with tuberculosis at age 13. She recovered and went to live with her grandfather in Italy from 1886-1889. Upon her return to America Marie decided to move to Oregon with her friend, Bess Holcom, who had been offered a job as a teacher there. In one example of Marie Equi's badassery, upon finding out that the school superintendent decided not to give Bess a job after all, Marie confronted him in the streets with a horsewhip. As written in Queen of the Bolsheviks, “needless to say, Bess got her job.”

As for Marie, she began studying at the Physicians and Surgeons Medical College in San Francisco in 1900. She later transferred to the University of Oregon Medical School once they began admitting women, and received her degree in 1903. In the years after graduating, she set up a medical practice treating working-class women and children and also became involved in the movement for women's suffrage. After the devastation of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco she rallied a group of doctors and nurses from Portland to help tend to the southern city's injured. During this time she also began a relationship with a woman named Harriet Speckart, with whom she lived until 1920. The women adopted a baby named Anna in 1915, when Marie was 43 and Harriet was 32.

Although she always had a working-class consciousness and had been active in reform-oriented politics, Marie quickly became radicalized after witnessing the brutality of repression as well as the hypocrisy of reformers during the Oregon Packing Company fruit cannery workers' strike in 1913. Soon after this she became involved with the International Workers of the World (IWW), working on campaigns supporting timber workers in the Northwest. She remained active with the IWW throughout her life, responding to national events such as the Everett Massacre in Massachusetts in 1916, and the 1934 West Coast Longshoremen's Strike. Marie also joined the American Union Against Militarism not long after the start of World War I. Her involvement with this organizations led to her arrest in 1918 after saying that “workers should not participate in a war where they would be killing fellow workers at the bidding of their masters” during an antiwar speech for a group of IWW members (*Queen of the Bolsheviks*). During her trial the prejudice against her political beliefs was transparent, and she was sentenced to three years in jail as well as a $500 fine. Marie appealed her case, but her appeals were denied and she began a shortened sentence on October 19, 1920.

While in jail, Marie wrote extensively to her large network of activist friends, including Margaret Sanger, with whom she had become close after their meeting in 1916 when Sanger came to Portland on a speaking tour discussing the necessity of legal birth control. Equi was a proponent of birth control and in her medical practice provided abortions to anyone who needed them. During Sanger's Oregon visit, Marie edited her pamphlet on birth control and defended her associates against obscenity charges. Bonded by their shared political involvement, the women became lifelong friends. It should be noted that while Margaret Sanger was instrumental in gaining widespread acceptance and distribution of contraceptives, she was also a racist supporter of eugenics. As with the development of the birth control pill and the IUD, which I hope to write about soon, it is disgusting that much of the research and support for potentially lifesaving technologies has been accompanied by racism, colonialism, and classism in addition to sexism.

Upon her release from jail in 1921, Marie led a much quieter life. She was not inspired by any of Portland's political activities throughout the 1920's. However, she did house another female IWW activist named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was in need of rest after campaigning for the release of anarchist political prisoners Sacco and Vanzetti. Elizabeth lived with Marie for ten years, from 1926-1936, taking care of Equi after a heart attack in 1930. After this point Equi was largely confined to bed, but was visited by many younger activists in her later years. Not much is known about the end of Marie's life, but she died in 1952 having enriched the lives of her many friends and those she served as a physician and activist committed to ending militarism and capitalism. It is inspiring to read about Dr. Equi today, and I am happy to include her in this series uncovering radical figures and movements in health history.