OPB, a member-supported public media organization in the Northwest, has premiered a new historical documentary about the life and legacy of Marie Equi. She was among the earliest female physicians in Oregon and 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, Massachusetts, Equi traveled to Oregon 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 United States was preparing to enter World War I, Equi gave passionate anti-war speeches believing the U.S. 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.”
Equi died quietly in Portland in 1952.
“Marie Equi” is the latest episode from “Oregon Experience,” an original OPB series that explores Oregon’s past and helps to provide a deeper understanding of the historical, social and political fabric of the state and region.
This new half-hour program is available to watch online now at opb.org/oregonexperience and at watch.opb.org. It will air on OPB TV Monday, March 20 at 9 p.m. You can stream this and other favorite OPB shows by downloading the PBS Video App.
The documentary is produced by Nadine Jelsing and edited by Lisa Suinn Kallem. All “Oregon Experience” episodes are made possible by the generous support of OPB members. For more information, please visit opb.org.