Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Free Speech or Bombs

Dr. Marie Equi arriving for her trial on sedition charges with Dr. Ruth Barnett.
           Free speech or bombs was the choice that C.E.S. Wood gave the United States in his defense of Dr. Marie Equi for violation of the World War I sedition law. Equi, called ‘Doc” by her friends, was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison at her San Francisco trial in 1919, but President Woodrow Wilson shortened her sentence and she only served ten months in San Quentin.  Her crime: unfurling a banner emblazoned “Down With the Imperialist War!” during a protest. By 1920, when she reported to prison and seventy years before George H.W. Bush gave Portland the nickname Little Beirut, Doc was a veteran protestor who raised her voice loudly for Worker’s rights and Women’s rights. One of the least-known episodes of her life occurred in Portland in 1912, before her political radicalization. It was her first major confrontation with the corruption of the Portland city government and set the tone for the events of the following summer during the Oregon Packing Company strike.
            Like many of Equi’s causes it began with a personal fight, in this case with George Prettyman who worked as the superintendant of the Medical Building, at the corner of SW Park and Alder, where she kept her office since the building opened in 1908. Dr. Equi specialized in women’s health and provided a full range of medical services, including abortion which was illegal under Oregon law. Michael Helquist provides good background on the abortion laws and their enforcement in Portland prior to 1920 in his recent contribution to the Oregon HistoricalQuarterly. According to Helquist abortion laws were selectively enforced and many doctors chose to provide them although they could be risking a lot. Julia Ruutila, another famous Portland radical who did the most extensive research on Equi’s life and knew her personally, said that Doc performed abortions because “she believed that women should have the right of choice and should not be forced to bear a child.” That would be about right. Portland’s “Stormy Petrel of Politics” did things because she believed in them and because she cared very deeply for other people, especially young women.
            Dr. Equi testified in court that she and George Prettyman had been very friendly until they had a falling out over a young woman, Helen Noble that he had brought to her for treatment of a “bad disease.” There is little doubt that the “disease” was pregnancy and that Noble was a prostitute, a victim of a “white slave” gang that was being protected by important members of the city’s judiciary system. Prettyman, who had been an engineer for Multnomah County for many years, is a mysterious character who is described by the Oregonian as a special Sheriff’s deputy, although there is no other indication that he had a connection with law enforcement. In most of the newspaper coverage he is described as janitor of the Medical Building, but it is clear that he was much more than a janitor. Doc “cured” the young woman’s “disease” and gave her a good talking too, saying that Prettyman should marry her. Equi was probably unaware that Prettyman was already married to another woman, who would later charge him with serious domestic violence. Prettyman was offended and refused to pay for the medical procedure, most likely threatening to charge Equi for performing the illegal operation.
            Equi withheld her rent in an effort to collect what Prettyman owed her and over the next few months things escalated. It is difficult to tell what actually happened between Equi and Prettyman, because their accounts are at such odds. Often the testimony of the two parties sounds like the squabbling of children as they hurl accusations at each other, but it all came to a head on the evening of May 17, 1912. Dr. Equi and her associate Dr. Bessie M. Gardner worked late in their office that evening and by the time they were ready to leave the building was empty. Prettyman, either by accident or as a practical joke, had pulled heavy gates across the stairwell, locking the two doctors upstairs. When they were unable to use the stairs they rang for the elevator, but Prettyman refused to bring it up. The two women dropped eggs from the sixth floor in an effort to get Prettyman’s attention and the fight was on. Prettyman brought the elevator to the sixth floor more than once, but either he refused to let the women on or they refused to ride with him. Finally Dr. Equi went into the reception room that she shared with Dr. Baird and telephoned the police.
"College Girls" at the annual suffragist gathering at Oaks Park in 1912. Second from the left is Dr. Bessie Gardner, third is Louise Bryant Turlinger.
            Prettyman barged into “Dr. Baird’s” office and attempted to handcuff Dr. Equi. Doc was never one to submit to arrest with “lamblike obedience.” The two of them scuffled and Equi was severely bruised before she pulled a handgun from her purse and pressed it into Prettyman’s stomach. The threat calmed the situation down and the police finally arrived to sort out the “riot.” For over a year Equi, with the assistance of her good friend attorney C.E.S. Wood, pursued criminal charges against Prettyman and a civil suit against the Medical Building, but it was in vain. Judge George Tazwell, of the Police Court, had a reputation for being very severe with most criminals, but he could be surprisingly lenient at times. Prettyman’s charges were dismissed, along with several charges that came before Tazwell’s court over the years. The civil suit was eventually dismissed and Dr. Equi relocated her office.
            1912 was an important year in Marie Equi’s life. For six years she had been a public figure in Portland because of the heroic relief effort she organized after the San Francisco earthquake. She had used that celebrity to promote the cause of Women’s Suffrage, but she had serious political disagreements with the women who ran the women’s groups in Portland. Her lesbianism was a factor, but the basic disagreement was over the place of Abigail Scott Duniway in the movement. Duniway who had led the still unsuccessful movement since the 1870s was the target of her sisters frustrations and the aging leader was being forcibly retired just as the goal was about to be achieved. Most of the women of the new generation were conservative feminists who fit into the mainstream of Portland business and society. Dr. Marie Equi emphatically was not. In many ways she had taken over the role of “people’s doctor” that ex-mayor and current Senator Harry Lane had played so well.
            In 1905 C.E.S. Wood told the National American WomanSuffrage Association Conference that although he supported the vote for women that voting meant nothing without economic equality. In 1912 when women finally achieved the vote in Oregon, Dr. Equi realized that her old friend was right. She began more and more to work for economic equality and the rights of workers and the unemployed. In 1913, standing up for another young woman in the Oregon Packing Company strike, Doc’s politics would begin to be more radical and militant. Between 1893, when “The Dalles Sensation” confronted a dishonest employer with a horsewhip, and 1912 when Doc and Prettyman fought, Marie Equi was non-violent. After the confrontation with Prettyman violence, used in self defense became a common occurrence for Doc as she took to the streets in strikes, a struggle over birth control and protest against the war.
Dr. Marie Diana Equi "Doc" shortly before her death in 1952.

            For a look at how the abortion laws were enforced in the 1950s you should see my new book, with JB Fisher  Portland on the Take. If you find value in my work and would like to support more local history like this I hope you will join my campaign at