Today in Feminist History: Ethel Byrne is Free!

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.

February 1, 1917: Ethel Byrne was pardoned by New York Governor Charles Whitman today for violating New York State’s strict anti-birth-control law last October at what was the nation’s first and only birth control clinic.

The decision came 10 days after she was sentenced to serve 30 days in the Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island. Byrne went on a hunger strike on January 22nd, the day of her sentencing, and has been force-fed approximately a dozen times by prison authorities since just after 11:45 p.m. on the evening of the 26th.

PHOTO: Ethel Byrne

Byrne was taken by ambulance from the Workhouse to the home of her sister, Margaret Sanger, at 246 West 14th Street, arriving there just minutes ago at 11 p.m. No interviews with Byrne were permitted due to her condition, which Sanger, a trained nurse, describes as “critical.” Naturally, this description is disputed by prison authorities, who have been issuing regular bulletins about her “good health” for several days.

The prisoner’s release was dependent upon Governor Whitman’s stipulation that she agree to refrain from violating Section 1142 of the New York State Penal Code, which prohibits selling or giving away birth control devices or contraceptive information. Her right to speak in favor of legalizing contraceptive devices and information remains intact, and it has been suggested that if she went to a neighboring State to continue her counseling work—even though it would be illegal there as well—she would not be breaking New York law or the terms of her conditional pardon. 

The final events leading to Byrne’s release began this afternoon, when her sister sent the Governor a telegram in Albany saying that she thought Byrne would agree to the condition he had imposed. But the telegram arrived just after the Governor left for New York City, so Sanger and Gertrude Pinchot headed a small delegation that met him at the St. Regis Hotel.

After the delegation asked the Governor to release Byrne, he asked if she was ready to agree to abide by New York’s laws. Though no one had been allowed to talk to Byrne since the 25th, Sanger replied: “My sister is dying. She is in no condition to make any promise. But in her behalf, I can promise that she will not again violate the law if she is released.” That was enough to satisfy the Governor, and Byrne’s ordeal was soon over. How Byrne feels about this agreement that was made in her name to get this conditional pardon is not yet known.

But the battle is far from over for the other two women arrested on October 26th, the day their clinic was raided and closed. Margaret Sanger, arrested while counseling three women about birth control, is still awaiting a verdict in her case. The three-judge panel listened to testimony on January 29th, then asked both sides to submit briefs before making a decision.

Fania Mindell has also been to court, but as yet no verdict has been announced for her “crime” of selling a copy of a basic sex education and birth control booklet by Margaret Sanger entitled “What Every Girl Should Know.” 

Mindell’s judges have postponed their ruling until they have had time to read the booklet for themselves to determine if it violates New York law. Apparently, these brave men are willing to run the risk of being “morally corrupted” by reading factual information about human reproduction and the means of preventing conception, which both Federal and State law consider sufficiently dangerous and obscene that anyone distributing such material can be imprisoned alongside those convicted of violent crimes. 

The verdicts in the cases of Sanger and Mindell could come as early as tomorrow, so while birth control advocates are celebrating the release of Ethel Byrne, there is concern that the beginning of two more such ordeals may follow the end of the first by less than a day.


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.