Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) and the Oregon Historical Society have co-produced “Oregon Experience,” an exciting series exploring Oregon’s rich past that helps to provide a deeper understanding of the historical, social and political fabric of the state. Each show brings to life characters, both familiar and forgotten, who have played key roles in building the state into the place it is today. The recently released show on Marie Equi looks at one of the earliest female physicians in Oregon who was a lifelong, passionate advocate for human rights, reproductive rights and free speech.
During the early 1900s, Equi built a successful general medical practice in Portland, focusing on the health and welfare of working class women and children. She performed abortions when the procedure was banned and distributed information about birth control–both part of her holistic approach to healthcare. Equi was also fiercely independent, and lived her life as an openly gay woman during a time when it was societally unaccepted.
Born in 1872 to Italian-Irish immigrants in New Bedford, MA, Equi traveled to OR in her early twenties to join a friend who was homesteading in The Dalles and teaching at a local academy. Soon after, Equi self-studied her way into medical school, graduating in 1903 from the University of Oregon Medical Department–now Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).
With drive and ambition, Equi embraced progressive causes during her early years in Portland, including working for women’s suffrage with Abigail Scott Duniway. In 1913, she took part in a violent Portland fruit packing strike led by women workers protesting low wages and dirty working conditions. She began aligning with the radical Industrial Workers of the World–the Wobblies–believing real change and social justice for all could happen only by working outside the capitalist system.
As the US was preparing to enter World War I, Equi gave passionate anti-war speeches believing the US was becoming involved for corporate profit. Refusing to be silent, she was convicted of sedition in 1918 and would serve almost a year in San Quentin Prison.
On the legacy she leaves, Equi’s biographer Michael Helquist says, “She was a remarkable individual. She showed people what you could do just by standing up for yourself. She was living her life the way she wanted to in the way, in her mind, she should.”
While Equi died quietly in Portland in 1952, her story comes to life in OPB’s 30-minute show now available at watch.opb.org and on the PBS Video App.