Today in Feminist History: Contraception Advocate Ethel Byrne’s Prison Hunger Strike Goes On

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 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 two co-defendants 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.

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 has relented on one issue, and does now 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.


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.