July 13th in (Feminist) History

marie_equi_281872-195229On this day in 1952 was the death of Marie Equi, a suffragist, lesbian, labor activist, and American physician who provided birth control and abortions at a time when both were illegal. She was born in 1872 in New Bedford, Massachusetts; the youngest of five daughters, born to an Italian immigrant and an Irish immigrant. She attended high school for one year before the dread of her impending future working in the mills lead her to escape with her high school girlfriend (Bessie Holcomb) to an Oregon homestead.

In a time when same-sex affairs were rarely discussed as anything more than “romantic friendships” (or “Boston Marriages”, if you were a wealthy or professional woman) Marie lived with Bessie as “companions” in a small homestead, where Bessie taught at the Wasco Independent Academy. Their life there was relatively quiet, although that wasn’t always the case. Marie caused a stir once, when the superintendent at Bessie’s job refused to pay her for her work, and Marie caught him outside his office and horsewhipped him– to the applause of the people of the town, who viewed him as a crook. (A raffle was held later over the same whip and the money was given to Marie and Bessie).

In 1897 they moved together to San Francisco, where Marie studied medicine first at Physicians & Surgeons Medical College, and then at the University of California. Her relationship ended around 1901, however, and in 1903 Marie moved alone to Portland, Oregon, to complete her studies at the University of Oregon Medical Department. It was there, in Portland, that she met Harriet Speckart, the woman who she would have a long relationship with for over a decade. This relationship, though not legally a marriage due to the laws at the time, eventually involved them adopting and raising a child together in an early and rare (for the times) example of a publicly same-sex family.

Marie was one of the first sixty women to become a doctor in Oregon, eventually starting a general practice in Portland in 1905; though her focus was on women and children, she also had male patients. Following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, she became more widely known as a physician when she joined group of health professionals who traveled there to care for the injured. She received a commendation from the army for her involvement, and was also praised by the Governor of California, and the Mayor of San Francisco.

Marie began providing abortions sometime around 1905-1915, not only despite the ban against it, but regardless of the status (social class, etc) of her patients. She would charge her wealthy clients more, because it allowed her to cover the costs for her less well-off patients. Though she never faced any legal consequences for her work performing abortions –nor as a member of Portland’s Birth Control League, where she helped distribute birth control information at a time when that was also illegal– she was technically arrested alongside Margaret Sanger (who she is said to have had a sexual relationship with) and others in 1916. They were brought in for distributing Sanger’s booklet on birth control, but Marie was charged no fines and continued her work after being released.

Marie went on to campaign for women’s right to vote, and celebrated when they gained that right in 1912. Over time, her politics became what was considered more ‘radical’ at the time, as she began supporting striking workers. In 1913 she joined a group of cannery workers (who were mostly women) protesting poor working conditions and wages (only 5-8 cents an hour) in east Portland. She went on strike with them and joined the protest, becoming a leader of the strike due to her status. The picketing line was eventually stormed by police; when one of them dragged away a pregnant woman, Marie became furious in response and ended up being clubbed over the head by another officer. The strike eventually ended, but it was the police brutality (along with the unsatisfactory results) that resulted in a radicalization of her beliefs. In time, she eventually becoming a voice in the Portland unemployment crisis of 1913-1914, regularly joining marches and calling herself a Radical Socialist as well as an anarchist.

During WWI, she protested against the war efforts, seeing them as an effort for capitalists to gain profits and for the government to indulge their imperialism. She spoke out with her objections the war, and was eventually arrested as a “threat to national security” under the newly revised Espionage Act. She was charged and, dspite her appeals, was convicted to three years; a sentence later commuted to a year and a day by President Wilson. She served her sentence in San Quentin State Prison at the age of 48, the only political prisoner among a group of inmates serving sentences for theft, homicide, and performing abortions. In time, she eventually earned a reduced sentence for good behavior and left after serving 10 months. She continued her medical practice, but lead a quieter life, living with both her daughter and IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who would eventually go on to be a national leader of the Communist Party USA. After Flynn returned to the East, and her daughter eloped, Marie’s life grew even quieter and eventually she became more ill. She was eventually moved to a nursing home and died in 1952 at the age of 80.

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