Today in Feminist History: Ethel Byrne’s Hunger Strike Might Be Over

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 31, 1917: Thanks to New York Governor Charles Whitman, birth control advocate Ethel Byrne’s force-feeding ordeal in the Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island may soon be nearing an end. And it will have done enormous good thanks to the notoriety given her case and her cause.

Earlier today, Gertrude Pinchot and a number of other members of the Committee of One Hundred met with the Governor in Albany, where he expressed sympathy for Byrne, and her cause of decriminalizing birth control as well. 

Whitman indicated that he supported the Committee’s suggestion that he appoint a commission to study how to change New York State law, which currently makes it a criminal offense to sell or give away information on birth control or any contraceptive devices. He is also open to the possibility of granting Byrne a “conditional” pardon: “I am sworn to enforce the law and I could grant Mrs. Byrne a pardon only on condition that she would refrain from violating it upon her release.”

Apparently, the Governor wants to grant her a pardon which would leave Byrne as free as anyone else to speak and write in favor of legalizing birth control, but she would have to promise never to repeat her “offense” of giving out specific information about how to prevent conception. Committee of One Hundred member Dr. Mary Holton noted that there might be a way for Nurse Byrne to get around that restriction: “She can promise the Governor that she will not violate the law in this State, then go over to New Jersey and practice.” (It should be noted that there is a very strict ban on selling or giving away birth control in New Jersey as well, though only “without just cause,” a phrase whose meaning is unclear, and puts a huge burden of proof on a physician to show why he or she should be allowed to make an exception for a specific patient, and not be convicted of violating the law.)

The Governor also said that he thought there should be an appeal of Byrne’s conviction, so that the constitutionality of bans on birth control and contraceptive information could be looked into by the courts. But one complicating factor is that if he pardons her, all legal proceedings are ended, so an appeal and court test of this Empire State law by Byrne would no longer be possible.

Though a “conditional” pardon was not entirely acceptable to the members of the delegation, they immediately went to the Governor’s legal assistant to obtain a pardon application blank, and also the paperwork necessary for an order compelling the Commissioner of Correction to allow Byrne’s sister, Margaret Sanger, to visit her in prison. Commissioner Lewis began denying Byrne any outside visitors even before her force-feedings began, four-and-a-half days into her hunger strike. The appeal for amendments to change the State’s anti-birth-control law was drafted by Professor John Dewey of Columbia University and signed by 39 Columbia professors, plus 4 members of the City College of New York faculty as well.

Ethel Byrne continues to refuse to eat voluntarily, and is being force-fed for the fifth day. Twice a day, milk, malted milk, chicken broth, sugar and a stimulant are administered through a funnel at the end of a rubber tube inserted through her throat to her esophagus. Commissioner of Correction Lewis, who has been hostile toward Byrne from the beginning, now wants to start charging her room and board, and has found a law that may allow it. He said today: “If we have people who persist in boarding with us, I think it would be a wise thing for the city to enforce this provision of the law and charge them board, especially if they insist on lying in bed, instead of working like the other prisoners.”

Fortunately, the public has become far more concerned about Ethel Byrne than Commissioner Lewis, and support for decriminalizing contraception has clearly been increasing as well. So while ignorance and repression may still be Federal and State policy in regard to family planning, the days of anti-birth-control laws now appear to be numbered, and the only question is whether they shall one day be overturned in the courts as unconstitutional, or by a popular demand for more enlightened legislation. 

PHOTO: Republican Governor of New York Charles Whitman, who has been in office since January 1, 1915.


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.