Historic Portlander Dr. Marie Equi Has Tuscan Street Named in Her Honor

The city of Barga’s librarian, Maria Elisa Caproni, was inspired to organize the street-naming campaign after reading a locally published Equi biography.

Mari Equi, photo via National Park Service.

Modern Portlanders most likely know of Dr. Marie Equi as the namesake of the Central Eastside lesbian bar Doc Marie’s. But the turn of the century doctor/activist, also noteworthy as one of the first out lesbians in the state of Oregon, was also honored in her ancestral homeland, Italy, after an Italian librarian learned about Equi’s life from a biography published in Oregon.

Maria Elisa Caproni, librarian of the Biblioteca Comunale di Barga, hosted an unveiling ceremony at the newly named via Dottoressa Marie Equi on May 18.

Caproni reached out to San Francisco-based author Michael Helquist after reading his biography, Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions (Oregon State University Press, 352 pages, $24.95). Helquist says Caproni sought genealogy records on Equi’s father to connect him to living relatives still in the region.

Equi’s father’s side of the family immigrated from Barga, a small Tuscan city, in the 19th century, but several of his relatives remained in Italy. Via Marie Equi honors the doctor’s ties to the city, and her contributions to the labor and reproductive rights movements.

Equi was born in New Bedford, Mass., in 1872, and moved to The Dalles with her long-term partner, Bessie Holcomb, in 1892. On July 21, 1893, Equi famously horsewhipped Rev. Orson D. Taylor, superintendent of the Wasco Independent Academy, for withholding Holcomb’s full teaching salary. Local merchants in The Dalles later auctioned off the horse whip for Equi and Holcomb.

They moved to San Francisco in 1897, but broke up, and Equi moved to Portland in 1903. She later had an intimate relationship with Margaret Sanger. Equi’s activism saw her perform abortions for women regardless of social class. She was radicalized in 1913 by brutality from the Portland Police Bureau during cannery labor strikes with socialist activists. Equi saw jail time for distributing Sanger’s birth control pamphlets when all contraception methods were illegal, and for protesting World War I. Equi passed away in 1952.

Marie Equi author Helquist didn’t expect that his book would one day earn its subject a street named for her, but Helquist says he is always excited when people take an interest in Equi’s story.

“She was a remarkable woman, an independent woman when that was just starting to become acceptable for some women,” Helquist says. “She had a great sense of humor, but she was very determined. I think she was a good model for anyone, at that time, to see that you can stand up for the right things, or the things you believe in, to protest what shouldn’t be happening.”

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