Michael Helquist

Marie Equi: Hero of Portland’s radical past

A new biography of Marie Equi re-introduces us to the once-notorious Portland socialist who fought for peace and women's and workers' rights


Born in 1872 to an East Coast, working-class immigrant family, Marie Diana Equi seemed destined to become just another New Bedford millworker. But by 1891 she was homesteading with her Wellesley-educated girlfriend near The Dalles, where she made national headlines after publicly horsewhipping a corrupt school superintendent.

As one of Oregon’s first female physicians, Equi led an acclaimed relief mission to San Francisco in the wake of the 1906 earthquake and fire. She also performed then-illegal abortions, and she was arrested with Margaret Sanger in 1916 for distributing birth control pamphlets. She led workers’ protests and strikes and called herself a Radical Socialist and anarchist. She was convicted of sedition for opposing U.S. involvement in World War I and served nearly 10 months in San Quentin. On returning to Portland, she cohabited with the labor activist—and future Communist Party USA chairwoman—Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

"Marie Equi" author Michael Helquist will speak at Edgefield on Tuesday.

“Marie Equi” author Michael Helquist will speak at Edgefield on Tuesday.

You’d think a figure as memorable as Marie Equi would be at least as familiar to Oregon history lovers as, say, Sacajawea, John Reed, or Abigail Scott Duniway. One of Equi’s contemporaries called her “the most interesting woman that ever lived in this state, certainly the most fascinating, colorful, and flamboyant.” But up until now, she seems to have been erased from the record, her story primarily scattered among old newspaper clippings and unpublished oral histories by those who befriended her in her later years.

A vivid new biography from Oregon State University Press ought to change all that. In a thoughtful yet page-turning account of Equi’s life and times, social historian Michael Helquist has portrayed not just a remarkably gutsy woman but also an era of street-level activism that makes today’s Occupy protests look like a barn dance.


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