Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Marie Diana Equi, 1872-1952
By Patricia A. Schechter, Professor of History, Portland State University
Member, Congressional Union
Marie Diana Equi was born in Massachusetts in 1872 and died in Oregon in 1952. She was the youngest of five children born to immigrant parents who worked in the textile mills of New Bedford. An independent spirit, young Marie Equi and a girlfriend, Bessie Holcomb, dropped out of high school to homestead out on the Columbia River in Oregon in 1892. Equi lived in a number of towns in Oregon and then briefly in San Francisco, where she and Holcomb completed medical degrees around 1903. Equi returned to Portland without Holcomb. She began a committed relationship to the well-born Harriet Speckart which lasted until Speckart briefly married a man in 1915. During their union, the Equi and Speckart legally adopted an infant daughter, Mary, Jr., also in 1915, and the three maintained a functioning family until Speckart's death in 1927.
Though she could move in middle class circles, Equi stayed close to working people socially and professionally. She treated both men and women in her medical practice but women sought her out as a provider of abortions and for birth control information, both of which were illegal. As a feminist, she was drawn to individualist modes. Her suffrage mentor in Oregon was Abigail Scott Duniway, the intellectual architect of the state movement stretching back to the 1870s. Duniway was thoroughly republican in her views and, like Equi, ill-suited for organizational and tactical discipline. As a faithful Duniway ally, Equi ran afoul of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) when Susan B. Anthony brought the organization to Portland for its annual convention in 1905 during the Lewis and Clark Exposition. When street politics caught on for women around 1910, Equi was front and center Portland, walking the line with cannery workers in 1913 and consistently agitating and picketing on behalf of free speech and free assembly during labor strikes. Equi welcomed Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger when they came to Portland before World War I, and she endured police scrutiny and social ostracism for these alliances. Equi served jail time during the cannery strike and was arrested in a 1916 antiwar demonstration in Portland. She served about a year in San Quentin for her conviction under the Espionage Act.
Equi leafletted for suffrage in the successful 1912 state referendum and registered for the Progressive Party in 1913. Equi also joined the Congressional Union. She attended the Union's San Francisco meeting in 1914, but she was unseated as a delegate due to machinations by Oregon women who looked askance at her radicalism and unconventionality. Equi campaigned against Hughes in 1916, but Hughes actually defeated Wilson in Oregon, one of only two states in which the president lost. A firebrand in life and in politics, Equi was an ally of the IWW and a self-proclaimed anarchist. The Red Scare and prison time took their toll, however, and in the 1920s and 30s, Equi focused on her medical practice. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn lived with Equi during the quieter years of 1926-36, which corresponded with Speckart's death. Flynn re-emerged in the late 1930s to help lead the Communist Party USA, but Equi stuck close to home, dealing with personal health problems and her daughter's growing up and marriage. Equi's commitment to direct service provision and her individualist, free-speech streak mitigated against the far-left aims of the Communist Party, with its totalitarian overtones. The moniker "Queen of the Bolsheviks" was, according to friends in Portland, self-imposed and a fair measure of Equi's marginality and hubris later in life.
Helquist, Michael. Marie Equi : Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2015.
Krieger, N. "Queen of the Bolsheviks: The Hidden History of Dr. Marie Equi." Radical America 17, no. 5 (1983): 55-73.