“I’m going to speak when and
where I wish. No man will stop me.”
Omagine if Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, had been a hard-core birth control advocate and proud lesbian who didn’t hesitate to beat up anyone who tried to wrong her. Sound awesome? Well, let me welcome you to the life and times of Marie Equi.
The fifth child of Italian and Irish immigrants who had faced no small share of hardship in their own lives, Marie was born in 1872 in New Bedford, Connecticut. At the time, the town was famous for its textile production, and young Marie got to know the industry up close and personal when she was forced into factory work as a child of eight years old. This being the pre-safety-inspection days, she (and a ton of other girls under sixteen years old) faced horrible working conditions, including twelve-hour days, lung problems caused by cotton-dust inhalation, and dangerous equipment that wrought horrible injuries and death—you know, good ole-timey factory fun. The work took such a toll on her health that Marie had to leave home and live with relatives, first in Florida, then in Italy, to recover from tuberculosis. She was only seventeen years old.
But Marie was tough as heck, and soon she got a clean bill of health. Upon returning to the United States, she reunited with her childhood friend Bessie Holcomb, who had taken advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 to pick up a pretty piece of Oregon property. Bessie now owned a sweet little farmhouse on over one hundred acres west of the city of The Dalles and, more important, far away from her family. According to the Dalles Chronicle in 1893, Bessie’s family definitely did not approve of her, ahem, “singular infatuation” with Marie. The couple found themselves a house and lived in what might have been known, had Marie been more well-off, as a “Boston marriage” (a term used to describe two single women living together, sometimes platonically, sometimes not).
Marie would go on to do some lovely and charitable things with the rest of her life, but if someone tried to screw with her lady, the gloves came off. One particularly passionate run-in occurred around June 1893. Bessie, who was a teacher, was owed the last $100 of her promised salary from one Reverend Orson D. Taylor of the Wasco Independent Academy, and Marie wanted him to pay up. Though Bessie tried to convince Marie to threaten him gently with an umbrella, Marie had more convincing methods in mind. As the Dalles Times-Mountaineer reported, Marie “horsewhipped Taylor from his office to the Methodist church” to the cheers of onlookers. (The press also wrote that Marie was so stirred to justice because she was “very much attached to [Bessie], and her friendship amounts to adoration.” Just gals bein’ pals, surely!) As it turned out, Reverend Taylor was a universally hated “smooth speaking scoundrel” who had scammed the people of The Dalles out of their money in a bunch of garbage real-estate schemes. The town’s businessmen were so grateful for Marie’s vigilante justice that the very next day they bought her a new dress, since “the one she wore during the encounter [had] been destroyed.” Townspeople also raffled off the horsewhip for much more than the owed $100, all of which went to Marie and Bessie; and when Marie was charged with assault and battery, they raised the $250 needed for her bond in under five minutes. Best of all, that same week the scumbag Reverend Taylor was arrested and accused of embezzling $50,000.
But a horsewhip isn’t the most effective way to help the less fortunate, and so in 1897 Marie and Bessie moved to San Francisco so that Marie could study, first at the Physicians and Surgeons Medical College and then at the University of California Medical Department. Even though at that time only around 3 percent of doctors in America were women, Marie wanted more than anything to help patients who had suffered as she had when young. She finished her degree in Portland in 1903, making her one of the first sixty women to become a doctor in Oregon. (Without Bessie, alas, for by then they had gone their separate ways.)
Although she earned a commendation and a medal from both the U.S. Army and the governor of California for helping victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Dr. Marie made her chief focus women’s reproductive health. She treated everyone without discrimination, even charging wealthy women more so that she could cover the costs of reproductive care for impoverished Portlandians. Providing birth control and abortions was still forbidden in the United States, but savvy Marie knew how to circumvent the laws. When a special deputy of the Multnomah County sheriff’s office almost came to blows with her over the illegality of her practice, she reminded him that she had just performed an abortion for a young woman he had brought to her and that he “should be ashamed of himself” for his hypocrisy.
Happily, Marie would fall in love again. Two years after graduation, she met a medical assistant named Harriet Speckart, the wealthy niece of the man who founded the Olympia Brewing Factory. The attraction was decidedly mutual. The two women moved in together and did adorable things like place second in the Class A carriage and team competition at Portland’s first official Rose Festival in 1917. Even when the relationship nearly cost Harriet her inheritance (notably when her staunchly homophobic family hired a private investigator to discredit her), the couple stuck fast and, after ten years together, adopted a little girl named Mary. Mary grew up calling Harriet “Ma” and Marie “Da” (since everyone else called her “Doc”); at the age of only sixteen, Mary would become the first woman in the Pacific Northwest to fly a plane solo. (Two-mom-parenting high-five!)
As the years passed, Marie supplemented her doctoring with political action, fighting for equal rights across class and gender boundaries, particularly women’s suffrage (achieved in Oregon for female American citizens of all races in 1912, eight years before the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution!) and improved workers’ rights. She often protested on behalf of local cannery workers at the Oregon Packing Company, where girls aged twelve to twenty were locked in a factory for more than twelve hours a day. When her patient Mrs. O’Connor, a pregnant Native American woman, was arrested for protesting, a furious Marie trailed two officers all the way to the police station, where she smacked them around and told the sheriff that he was, among other things, “a cowardly, atavistic creature,” “a primitive puppy,” and “a caveman.” Mrs. O’Connor was released, and the Oregonian praised Marie for her “sulphuric eloquence.” When in 1916 Marie and the noted birth control activist Margaret Sanger (with whom she might have been gal pals as well, judging by letters between them that describe kissing in “absolute surrender”) were hauled off for helping to distribute a pamphlet on “family limitation,” Marie stabbed her arresting officer with a pin, laughing while she told him that the weapon had been poisoned and he was about to “die a slow, lingering death.” (He didn’t die, but he did have his wound cauterized with acid—just in case.)
After that episode, Marie grew increasingly radicalized. When she protested the United States’ involvement in World War I (thinking the conflict was nothing more than a capitalist cash grab), she was arrested under the Espionage Act and thrown into San Quentin Prison. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson commuted her sentence, but she nevertheless spent ten months behind bars, during which time she often attended to the other thirty-one female inmates.
While Marie was imprisoned, Harriet and Mary moved to the seaside, separating from “Da” but remaining close for the rest of their lives. Upon her release for good behavior in August 1921, Marie began a relationship with another radical activist, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, leader of the Industrial Workers of the World. Flynn called Marie “one of the most feared and hated women in the Northwest” (which means you know she did something right), and the two would take care of each other into their old age—a tender ending for one tough lady.