In the summer of 1913, Dr. Marie Equi was arrested and jailed during a fruit-packing strike in Portland. She hadn’t planned on it. She was simply walking by the plant on her way to visit a sick patient.
She saw women workers picketing outside. Their signs carried a bold message:
40 cents a day is what makes prostitutes. Girls demand a living wage.
The women sorted and stemmed cherries. They would testify that a good portion of the fruit was rotten and had to be discarded. But they were paid only for the cherries that remained – amounting to about 4 to 6 cents an hour.
At the time, Equi was a leader in the Progressive Party of Oregon, president of the Women’s Eight-Hour League and an activist in the campaign for women’s suffrage. She was working for social reforms well within the system.
“— Marie Equi
It’s very easy to attend a civic lunch, listen to a number of complimentary speeches from well-mannered and admiring people, while you wear your best clothes and play the part of hero. But to go out and mount a soap box and declare war against the organized forces of capitalism is quite a different matter.”
But her life was about to take a hard left into radical politics. The cannery women’s fight for better wages and working conditions had sparked outrage against the inequities Equi saw in the capitalist system. She, herself, was no stranger to adversity.
Born in 1872 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, she’d grown up in a working-class immigrant family and had labored in the town’s textile mills to help support the family. As a young woman she self-studied her way into medical school, receiving her degree in 1903.
Watch as “Oregon Experience” explores the life of Dr. Marie Equi.
Dr. Equi built a successful practice in Portland focusing on the health and welfare of women and children. For her, that meant a holistic approach that included reproductive rights for all and access to abortions, which were severely restricted at the time.
Fiercely independent, she lived openly as a lesbian when the term was rarely used. “She identified as a doctor,” said Equi’s biographer, Michael Helquist. “That was her declaration.”
Related: Listen as Michael Helquist discusses his book "Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions" on OPB's "Think Out Loud"
As she walked by the picketing women that June day in 1913, Equi mounted a soapbox encouraging other women workers to join the strike. Demanding the right of free speech, members of the radical Industrial Workers of the World – known as Wobblies – were already there in support.
City officials attempted to stop the strike but even the escalating violence failed to silence the women.
When police pulled a pregnant woman off the soapbox, Equi’s temper exploded. “She was so righteously angry she started punching officers,” Helquist noted. Bruises appeared on Equi’s arms from clubbing by police.
Local newspapers quoted Equi as threatening “a slow lingering death” to the next man who prevented her from speaking. She vowed to stick the person with a hatpin poisoned by a virus.
“— Marie Equi
I lose my temper occasionally, and I do say things which I wouldn’t if I kept cool. But official brutality always did provoke me and when I’m mad – then is when they think I’m crazy.”
City officials who witnessed Equi’s behavior labeled her as dangerous and insane. She was given a choice – leave the state of Oregon or face criminal prosecution and possible commitment to an asylum. Taken to the train station twice, she refused to leave each time.
“Honestly, now,” Equi declared. “Did anyone imagine for a moment that I was a quitter? I’m here to see this thing through and I won’t run.” Eventually released on bail, Equi’s case never went to trial, but her life and her politics were forever changed.
Over the next few years, she actively aligned with the radical IWW. She spoke often at the local union hall advocating militant direct action to improve conditions for working men and women.
In 1916, she traveled to Seattle to help provide medical care and support to wounded Wobblies attacked during a lumber mill strike that became known as the Everett Massacre. “We knew you’d come, Doc,” said the hospitalized strikers.
“Marie Equi simply did what she believed was necessary,” said Helquist, “and what she felt was right.”
As the United States prepared to enter World War I, her passionate anti-war speeches denouncing America’s involvement placed her squarely in jeopardy with the United States Government.
Department of Justice agents surveilled her public and personal life with unrelenting vigor collecting reports that would ultimately lead to her arrest and conviction for sedition in 1918.
She would serve nearly a year in San Quentin State Prison, returning to Portland in 1921. Although no longer in the spotlight, she remained committed to the causes of labor, free speech and social justice for the rest of her life.
- Helquist, Michael. “Marie Equi, Passionate Politics and Outlaw Passions,” Oregon State University Press, 2015.
- Mayer, Heather. “Beyond the Rebel Girl, Women and the Industrial Workers of the World in the Pacific Northwest, 1905-1924.” Oregon State University Press, 2018.
- Jensen, Kimberly. “Women’s ‘Positive Patriotic Duty’ to Participate: The Practice of Female Citizenship in Oregon and the Expanding Surveillance State during the First World War and its Aftermath.” Oregon Historical Quarterly. Vol. 118. No. 2, 2017.
- Krieger, Nancy. “Queen of the Bolsheviks: The Hidden History of Dr. Marie Equi.” Radical America, Vol. 17. No. 5, 1983.