Today in Feminist History: Birth Control Pioneer Ethel Byrne is Being Force-Fed in Prison

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 28, 1917: A regular schedule of force-feedings is being drawn up by Workhouse authorities for Ethel Byrne, now serving a 30-day sentence for giving out information on contraception last October at what had briefly been the nation’s first birth control clinic.

On October 26th, after providing services to at least 400 women since it opened ten days earlier, the clinic at 46 Amboy Street in Brooklyn was raided and closed by police for violating Section 1142 of the New York State Penal Code, which prohibits anyone from giving out information on contraception or actual birth control devices. Byrne’s trial was held before a three-judge panel on January 8th, with sentencing on the 22nd.

Ethel Byrne has been undergoing force-feeding three times a day since about 11:45 p.m. on the day before yesterday. The procedure consists of having a rubber tube inserted through her mouth and into her esophagus while a pint of milk, two eggs, and a small amount of brandy are poured through a funnel.

Workhouse authorities have announced that they will not end the feedings when Byrne has recovered from the immediate effects of her four-and-a-half day hunger strike. They will continue the ordeal until she agrees to eat and drink voluntarily.

Commissioner of Correction Lewis has been besieged by telephone calls from people objecting to Byrne’s treatment, but he insists it’s nothing unusual: “Mrs. Byrne is being fed because the law requires it. Forcible feeding is nothing to cause so much comment. It is an every day matter with us. We constantly get alcoholics and drug addicts who must be forcibly fed. We are not permitted to allow prisoners to commit suicide. The only difference between Mrs. Byrne and the others is that Mrs. Byrne has someone on the outside giving out statements about her and us.”

No family member, friend, or lawyer has been able to see the prisoner for three days, and there is growing concern about her true condition, despite reassuring bulletins issued by the Workhouse allegedly showing her condition to be “improving.” At 6:00 this evening the latest report said that her temperature was 97, pulse 96, respiration 19, blood pressure 122, and that her physical and mental condition were both “good.” 

On another front, it was announced today that a delegation from the Committee of 100 will go to Albany on the 31st to ask New York Governor Charles Whitman to commute Byrne’s sentence. The Committee was organized by Gertrude Pinchot and other members of the Birth Control League, such as Rose Pastor Stokes, Crystal Eastman and Juliet Rublee, to protest the arrests at the clinic and to raise money to help with the growing legal expenses of birth control advocates.

Ethel Byrne sitting outside the courtroom during her recent trial

The mass meeting in Carnegie Hall tomorrow night in support of those arrested at the clinic, and to promote the legalization of birth control, is now a sold-out affair, though six box seats will likely be empty. They have been reserved for the three judges who convicted and sentenced Byrne, the Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted her, and two of his staff members. The police, on the other hand, are expected to show up, since there will be an attempt to distribute copies of the first issue of the Birth Control Review, containing articles favoring contraception. 

The immediate goal of local birth control advocates is to repeal the law under which Byrne has been convicted. Section 1142 of the New York State Penal Code reads as follows:

INDECENT ARTICLES: A person who sells, lends, gives away, or in any manner exhibits or offers to sell, lend or give away, or has in his possession with intent to sell, lend or give away, or advertises, or offers for sale, loan or distribution, any instrument or article, or any recipe, drug or medicine for the prevention of conception or for causing unlawful abortion, or advertises or holds out representation that it can be used or so applied, or any such description as will be calculated to lead another to so use or apply any such article, recipe, drug, medicine or instrument, or who writes or prints, or causes to be written or printed, a card, circular, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind, or gives information orally, stating when, where, how, of whom, or by what means such an instrument, article, recipe, drug or medicine can be purchased or obtained, or who manufactures any such instrument, article, recipe, drug or medicine, is guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be liable to the same penalties as provided in section eleven hundred and forty-one of this chapter.

The punishment prescribed in Section 1141 is a sentence of “not less than ten days nor more than one year’s imprisonment or a fine of not less than fifty dollars nor more than one thousand dollars or both fine and imprisonment for each offense.”

The battle to repeal decades-old State and Federal prohibitions on birth control information and devices is certain to be a long one. But it is now being fought fiercely and openly by people whose commitment to the cause extends to undergoing imprisonment, hunger strikes and force-feedings, so victory seems certain, if quite distant. 


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.