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Today in Herstory: Fania Mindell and Margaret Sanger Found Guilty of Violating New York’s Birth Control Laws

Founding Feminists is the FMF’s daily herstory column.

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February 2, 1917: The persecution of birth control advocates continued today with “guilty” verdicts announced in the cases of Fania Mindell and Margaret Sanger.

They were tried on January 29th for violating Section 1142 of the New York State Penal Code. This statute prohibits anyone from selling or giving away information about contraception, or birth control devices themselves, and classifies both as “indecent articles.”

Fania Mindell
Fania Mindell

Mindell was convicted of selling a copy of one of Sanger’s booklets which gives basic information about reproduction and contraception. This “crime” occurred at what was the nation’s first – and so far only – birth control clinic, founded by Sanger, her sister Ethel Byrne and Fania Mindell. It operated from October 16th until the 26th of last year, when it was raided and closed. Sanger, who was arrested as she counseled three women about birth control, while openly displaying contraceptive devices, was found guilty as well.

The verdicts of the three-judge panel (the defendants were denied jury trials) were read just hours after Ethel Byrne was freed from the Blackwell’s Island Workhouse by Governor Charles Whitman’s pardon. She had been in custody since her conviction on January 22nd for her role in running the clinic.

The reason for the four-day delay between the trial and the verdicts was so the judges could read the Sanger booklet, entitled “What Every Girl Should Know,” to determine whether it was in violation of the law, then read briefs submitted by the prosecution and defense concerning whether Sanger’s actions in opening and running the clinic could be legally justified.

Sanger said that whether she goes on a hunger strike as her sister did will depend upon what the court decides to do at the time of sentencing. If she is permitted to remain free on bond while her conviction is appealed, there would obviously be no strike. But if she, too, is sent straight to the Workhouse, she might follow her sister’s example, though other ideas are being considered as well.

Ethel Byrne, pardoned by the Governor after serving 10 days of her 30-day sentence, is at Sanger’s home recuperating from the effects of the hunger strike she began immediately after her conviction and sentencing on January 22nd, as well as the ordeal of about a dozen force-feedings, which began just after midnight on January 27th. Though still weak, her doctor says that she will regain her health soon.

Should Sanger and Mindell be given prison sentences, they, too, could be under the control of Commissioner of Correction Burdette Lewis. He made no secret of his hostility toward Ethel Byrne, and it was he who ordered her force-fed when she chose to protest her sentence with a hunger strike. So, vicious treatment can be expected for any imprisoned birth control advocate as the battle to legalize contraception goes on.