Today in Feminist History: Ethel Byrne is Providing Birth Control Information to Her Fellow Prisoners

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

January 24, 1917: Tonight, Ethel Byrne is in Cell 139, next to the prison hospital in the Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island, New York—and she gave out information on family planning to two fellow prisoners on the ferry boat to the island this morning.

She is serving a 30-day sentence for giving out information about contraception last October at the nation’s first, and, so far, only, birth control clinic during the 10 days it was in operation before being raided and closed. But her crusade continues.

Byrne’s hunger strike continues as well. She has not eaten since the morning of the day before yesterday, when she was convicted, even though food is available to her. A physical examination this afternoon showed that she was still in reasonably good condition, so force-feeding has not yet been ordered. Detailed information about her health is hard to obtain because Commissioner of Correction Lewis refused to admit any reporters to the Workhouse today, so what’s known comes solely from what prison officials choose to say, and a brief note from her brought out by her lawyer.

The Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island.

Meanwhile, the Committee of One Hundred held a two-hour meeting today to plan strategy for its campaign in support of all the birth control advocates.

At the meeting, Byrne’s note was read by her attorney: “I have eaten nothing since I went on strike Monday and I will eat nothing until I am released. It does not make much difference whether I starve or not, so long as my plight calls attention to the archaic laws which would prevent our telling the truth about the facts of life. The fight is to go on.”

In addition to planning a mass meeting at Carnegie Hall on the 29th, and promoting legislation by Assemblyman Shiplacoff, which would legalize the giving out of birth control information in the State of New York, the committee also adopted a resolution calling on Byrne to end her hunger strike, as she is too valuable to lose.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.