Today in Feminist History: The War on Birth Control is Back in Full Force

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 2, 1917: “Guilty” verdicts were handed down by a three-judge panel today (the defendants were denied a jury trial) in the cases of Fania Mindell and Margaret Sanger.

They were tried on January 29th for operating the clinic in violation of Section 1142 of the New York State Penal Code, which prohibits anyone from selling or giving away information about contraception, or birth control devices themselves, and classifies both as “indecent articles.” 

Just a day after Ethel Byrne was conditionally pardoned by the Governor, and then released from the Workhouse last night, where she had been on a hunger strike and being force-fed while serving a 30-day sentence for distributing information on contraception at what was the nation’s first and only family planning clinic, the persecution of birth control advocates has once again resumed at full force. 

PHOTO: Fania Mindell outside the courtroom.

Mindell was convicted of selling a copy of a booklet which gives basic information about sexuality and reproduction. Sanger had been arrested as she counseled three women about birth control, while openly displaying contraceptive devices. Their “crimes” occurred at the clinic the three operated at 46 Amboy Street in Brooklyn, from October 16th until the 26th of last year, when it was raided and closed. 

The reason for the four-day delay between the trial and the verdicts was so the judges could read the allegedly “indecent” booklet (“What Every Girl Should Know” by Margaret Sanger) to determine whether it was in violation of the law, then read briefs submitted by the prosecution and defense concerning whether Sanger’s actions in opening and running the clinic could be justified.

Sanger said that whether she goes on a hunger strike as her sister did will depend upon what the court decides to do at the time of sentencing. If she is permitted to remain free on bond while her conviction is being appealed, there would obviously be no strike. But if she, too, is sent straight to the Workhouse, she might follow Ethel Byrne’s example, though other ideas are being considered as well.

Byrne, pardoned by the Governor after serving 10 days of her 30-day sentence, is at Sanger’s home recuperating from both the effects of the hunger strike she began immediately after her conviction and sentencing on January 22nd, as well as the ordeal of about a dozen force-feedings, which began just before midnight on January 26th. Though still weak, her doctor says that she will regain her health soon. 

Should Sanger and Mindell be given prison sentences, they, too, could be under the control of Commissioner of Correction Burdette Lewis. He made no secret of his hostility toward Ethel Byrne, and it was he who ordered her force-fed when she chose to protest her conviction and sentence with a hunger strike. So, vicious treatment for any imprisoned birth control advocate can be expected as the battle to legalize contraception and information about birth control goes on.


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.