Dr. Marie Equi was dedicated to the expansion of women's reproductive choices, including access to birth control and abortion. She was a leading figure in public health campaigns and organized a contingent of Portland doctors and nurses to travel to San Francisco in response to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. In recognition of her efforts, she received an award from President Theodore Roosevelt.
Marie Diana Equi was born to an Irish mother and an Italian father in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Both parents had immigrated to the United States in search of greater freedomher mother fled economic stagnation and political oppression in Ireland, and her father escaped Italy after fighting papal rule. During her childhood in Massachusetts, she worked in a textile mill from age 8 to 13. After leaving America for several years to live with her grandfather in Italy, she returned to the states at age 17, and moved west to avoid the mills and to create a new life for herself. Equi traveled to the west with her friend Bess Holcom and while Holcom worked as a teacherEqui studied to enter medical school. In 1901 she enrolled in the University of Oregon Medical School, as a member of one of the first classes to admit women at the institution. After graduating with her M.D. in 1903 she set up practice in Portland, Oregon, serving working class women and children and gaining a reputation as an expert diagnostician and tireless advocate for reproductive choice.
Dr. Equi was an exceptional physician. When birth control advocate Margaret Sanger described her as "a rebellious soul" and labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn proclaimed her "the stormy petrel of the Northwest," they understated the case. She was a radical political activist who lived openly as a lesbian.
A staunch campaigner for justice with a fiery temperament, she once publicly threatened a man with a bullwhip because he owed her partner money. When police arrested a fellow labor activist for speaking in public, she berated the authorities so openly and severely that she managed to secure the release of her colleague. As a champion of justice, Dr. Equi fought for, and was imprisoned to secure, rights that are considered fundamental today.
When Margaret Sanger visited Portland in 1916, Sanger and Equi were arrested for defending three men caught distributing Sanger's birth control pamphlets. The incident began a long friendship between them, and Dr. Equi even helped to revise some of Sanger's writings.
Dr. Equi did not distinguish between what many saw as distinct campaigns for birth control, women's suffrage, and an overall improvement in women's living standards and working conditions. Instead, she saw all as part of the larger class struggle, the end of which would be the freedom, dignity, and health of working women and their families.