Today in Herstory: Birth Control Advocates Press for Better Conditions for Ethel Byrne

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


January 30, 1917: Imprisoned birth control advocate Ethel Byrne’s force-feedings continue, as do nationwide protests over her conviction and treatment.

One of the flyers posted around town in October advertising America's first birth control clinic.
One of the flyers posted around town in October advertising America’s first birth control clinic.

Today a telegram was sent from the Chicago Economic Forum to New York City Commissioner of Correction Burdette Lewis which said:

The Economic Forum assembled on Sunday at Colonial Hall, Randolph and Dearborn Streets, vigorously and unanimously protests the cruelty being practiced on Mrs. Ethel Byrne under your authority of forcibly feeding her. Your violence is of the same quality as the court’s injustice.

Commissioner Lewis replied:

The penitentiary laws of New York provide: ‘Every person guilty of attempting suicide is guilty of a felony. A person who willfully in any manner advises, encourages, abets or assists another person in taking the latter’s life is guilty of manslaughter in the first degree.’ I will not permit or abet the violation of either section. I would neglect my duty if I willingly permitted a prisoner to injure himself.

Byrne has been in custody since January 22nd, after being convicted of violating Section 1142 of New York State’s Penal Code by furnishing information on birth control to patients at the clinic she, Margaret Sanger and Fania Mindell operated in Brooklyn from October 16th until the 26th when it was raided and closed. Immediately after her conviction she began a hunger strike, and the force-feedings commenced after she had gone without food for the first four-and-a-half days of her 30-day sentence.

She is currently being force-fed twice a day, with beef juice newly added to Byrne’s diet of eggs, milk and brandy, administered through a funnel at the top of a rubber tube inserted down her throat to her esophagus.

According to prison officials, Byrne is supposedly doing well, “cooperating” in the procedure by not resisting the force-feedings, and even took a walk around the ward this morning. However, since not even her sister, Margaret Sanger, or her lawyer have been permitted to see her since before the force-feedings began, there is great skepticism about the official reports, and a growing concern about her health.

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