Dr. Marie Equi: Portland’s firebrand birth control and suffrage pioneer

Dr. Marie Equi


By Sunny Clark, PQ Monthly


Portland is no stranger to birth control battles, which are again at the forefront of women’s health issues. Education and awareness have always been the tools of women’s suffrage, evidenced by the appreciative crowd that turned out when Planned Parenthood development coordinator Sarah Keefe welcomed historian Heather Mayer to In Other Words Feminist Community Center on Tuesday. The Portland Community College instructor delivered a riveting presentation on the life and times of the Rose City’s birth control pioneer, Dr. Marie Equi.

Equi arrived to Portland at the age of 21 with her best friend, Bess Holcomb. During her career as a medical doctor, Equi was openly lesbian and counted many of Portland’s social elite among her supporters. This colorful character was disparaged as a gold digger by the family of her lover, Olympia Brewing Company heiress Harriet Speckart, with whom she worked. Equi was later rumored to be in love with her friend and colleague, pioneering sex educator Margaret Sanger.

Equi was arrested with Sanger in 1916 at a birth control rally in Portland, which began their friendship. Equi later wrote to Sanger, “I love you with an ecstasy and understanding of spirit that you alone have imparted to me thru the very brightness and flow of your intellect. … I kiss your sweet mouth in absolute surrender.”

Sanger, apparently, did not return her feelings, but remained a loyal friend and supporter, later commenting that Equi was “a rebellious soul, generous, kind, brave, but so radical in her thinking that she was almost an outcast.”

“Marie Equi was a favorite subject, a fascination, of the Oregonian throughout her career,” Mayer said, and became known as much for her anarchist anti-war crusade at the dawn of World War I as for her dedicated activism on behalf of women’s health. Equi’s lesbianism was referred to in court, when she was indicted by the federal government for “sedition” due to her anti-war activities; the U.S. prosecutor called her an “unsexed woman.”

Mayer stressed that Equi offered comprehensive family planning education. “Birth control as an economic issue was definitely the focus,” she said.

Equi often donated her medical services to women in need for free, and was one of the few area physicians to provide birth control and abortions. She led or participated in many of the battles that helped to establish family planning as accepted medical care in our society.

The event was organized by Planned Parenthood “Sexy Tuesdays” to benefit their Patient Assistance Funds, among them the Equal Access Fund, which provides services to low-income LGBTQI patients.


Need more feminism in your life? Head to the Unite Against the War on Women rally tomorrow, April 28, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., on the steps of the Oregon State Capitol in Salem. Visit http://oregon-wow.org/ for more information.