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Today in Herstory: Ethel Byrne’s Hunger Strike Goes On

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.

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January 26, 1917: Ethel Byrne’s condition continued to weaken this morning as she passed the 96-hour mark of her fast.

Its purpose is to protest her 30-day sentence for giving out birth control information. She is being closely watched by the prison physician, and authorities say that force-feeding may begin on the 29th if she does not willingly eat. Coincidentally, that’s the same day her sister, Margaret Sanger, and Fania Mindell will go on trial for their part in the “crime” of operating America’s first birth control clinic from October 16th until the 26th when it was raided and closed.

Ethel Byrne, just to the right of center, and her sister, Margaret Sanger, on the left, when Byrne was in court earlier this month being tried on the charge of disseminating birth control information.
Ethel Byrne, just to the right of center, and her sister, Margaret Sanger, on the left, when Byrne was in court earlier this month being tried on the charge of disseminating birth control information.

Commissioner of Correction Burdette Lewis is not sympathetic to Byrne, or her hunger strike, and in an attempt to discredit her said: “In an institution of 5,000 inmates it is next to impossible to prevent food from being smuggled to an inmate.” However, when pressed, he admitted that: “So far as I know, Mrs. Byrne has not eaten, but I cannot be absolutely certain of it.” He also noted: “I cannot say that she drank any water, but her handkerchiefs have needed washing with suspicious frequency.”

Commissioner Lewis refused to allow Byrne’s sister Margaret to visit her today. Sanger said: “Officialism is running riot when one sister is not permitted to see another who is in a dying condition.”

But Commissioner Lewis does allow regular bulletins on Byrne’s condition to be released. The 10:00 a.m. update described her blood pressure as within normal limits but wavering, her pulse moderately weakened, her temperature slightly below normal, her respiration within normal limits, and her general condition slightly weaker. Fortunately, these reports are being reprinted in newspapers, so a great deal of attention is now being focused on the drive to legalize contraception and allow distribution of birth control information, as well as on the courage and determination of those committed to the cause.

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