Anarchism, Featured

Dr. Marie Equi: A Portland Firebrand

Marie Equi was a lesbian, anarchist, feminist, abortion and birth control advocate and lifelong radical.

by Matt

Marie Equi was born in 1872 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She dropped out of school at age 8 to work in the textile mills until age 13, briefly leaving the states for a few years to live in Italy with her grandparents. At the age of 20 she moved with Bess Holcomb, a high school friend to The Dalles, Oregon in 1892. Bess had found employment at Wasco Independent Academy and this time marked one of Marie Equi’s first recorded direct actions. Reverend Orson D. Taylor refused to pay Holcomb a promised $100 in July of 1982. In response Marie stated that she would publicly horsewhip him. She followed up on her promise and was arrested. All charges were dropped though a bail of $250 was required. Many people in town responded favorably to Marie’s actions. She was easily able to raise the funds both for bail and to reimburse Holcomb.

A number of years later Bess and Marie moved to San Francisco, California so that Marie could begin studying at the Physicians and Surgeons Medical College in San Francisco in 1900. She finished her studies at Oregon Medical School once they started accepting women, completing her degree in 1903. She established a general practice in Portland, primarily treating working-class women and children, often at no charge. She was one of a few doctors who performed abortions in Portland with little care of money or social status.

On hearing of the the devastation caused to San Francisco by the 1906 earthquake she quickly organized a group of doctors and nurses to provide humanitarian aid. She received a special commendation from the United States Army. During her time in San Francisco she became involved with Harriet Spechart, the niece of Olympia Brewing Company founder Leo Schmidt. While numerous attempts were made to discourage them, the family went so far as to threaten to revoke Harriet’s inheritance, the couple returned to share various residences together in Portland, Oregon.

During the years between 1903-1913, Equi’s politics were progressive, supporting the eight-hour workday, suffrage and state-supported education. She was involved in the woman’s suffrage movement that saw women get the right to vote in Oregon in 1912. In 1915, Harriet and Marie adopted an infant girl, Mary, who referred to Harriet as her “ma” and Marie as her “da”.

By 1916, Marie Equi’s politics quickly shifted to becoming more radicalized after witnessing the brutality and repression of workers during the Oregon Packing Company fruit cannery workers’ strike in 1913. She was also disillusioned with the progressives, whose hypocrisy she was hard-pressed to overlook. Progressives and radicals joined in assisting the women-led strike against low wages, poor working conditions and unsympathetic cannery management. The Industrial Workers of the World were one of the supporters of the strike. Portland’s city government and its police force repeatedly jailed IWW members in order to halt public protests. The protests were one of the “free speech fights” the union organized in the region, when they would call in outside reinforcements to fill a town’s jail until authorities gave up and allowed them to speak publicly. It was during this time of both the free speech fight and the brutality used to break the strike that Marie Equie started espousing anarchist ideas and denouncing capitalism. In fact, because the police would haul IWW street speakers off their soapboxes before they could finish speaking, Equi once donned lineman’s spurs and gave her speech up a telephone pole, out of reach.

In 1916, Equi joined the American Union Against Militarism. During a war-preparedness rally in downtown Portland she unfurled a banner reading:

“PREPARE TO DIE, WORKINGMEN, J.P. MORGAN & CO. WANT PREPAREDNESS FOR PROFIT”.

In 1918, Equi was arrested for sedition under the newly revised Espionage Act. The act sought to criminalize dissent and has been used over the last 100 years to jail and intimidate people across the political spectrum, most recently Army whistleblower B. Manning. Her arrest centered around her giving a speech that among other things said “workers should not participate in a war where they would be killing fellow workers at the bidding of their masters” during an anti-war speech for a group of IWW members. In October 1920 Equi began her 3-year sentence at San Quentin State Prison, which was later reduced to a year and a half.

Labor leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn stayed with Equi to rest after campaigning for the release of Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchists convicted of shooting and killing two men in an attempted shoe factory robbery in 1920. Flynn would live with Equi for over ten years. After Equi’s release she lived a quieter life, but remained active with the IWW, responding to national events such as the 1934 West Coast Longshoremen’s Strike. In May of 1927, Equi’s daughter came to live with her “da” in Portland. Many years later, on July 13th, 1952 at the age of 80, Equi died in the Fairlawn Hospital in Portland.

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