Today in Feminist History: Ethel Byrne’s Force-feedings Continue (January 30, 1917)

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 30, 1917: Imprisoned birth control advocate Ethel Byrne’s force-feedings continue, as do nationwide protests over her conviction and treatment.

The Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island, where Ethel Byrne is currently being held.

Today a telegram was sent from the Chicago Economic Forum to New York City Commissioner of Correction Burdette Lewis, which read:

“The Economic Forum assembled on Sunday at Colonial Hall, Randolph and Dearborn Streets, vigorously and unanimously protests the cruelty being practiced on Mrs. Ethel Byrne under your authority of forcibly feeding her. Your violence is of the same quality as the court’s injustice.”

Commissioner Lewis quickly replied:

“The penitentiary laws of New York provide:

‘Every person guilty of attempting suicide is guilty of a felony. A person who willfully in any manner advises, encourages, abets or assists another person in taking the latter’s life is guilty of manslaughter in the first degree.’ I will not permit or abet the violation of either section.

I would neglect my duty if I willingly permitted a prisoner to injure himself.”

Byrne has been in custody since January 22, after being convicted of violating Section 1142 of New York State’s Penal Code by furnishing information on birth control to patients at what was America’s first and only birth control clinic, operated at 46 Amboy Street in Brooklyn from October 16 until the 26 when it was raided and closed.

Immediately after her conviction, Byrne began a hunger strike, and the force-feedings commenced after she had gone without food for the first four-and-a-half days of her thirty-day sentence. She is currently being force-fed twice a day, with beef juice newly added to Byrne’s diet of eggs, milk and brandy, administered through a funnel at the top of a rubber tube inserted down her throat to her esophagus.

According to prison officials, Byrne is supposedly doing well, cooperating in the procedure by not resisting the force-feedings, and even took a walk around the ward this morning. However, since no one has been permitted to see her since the force-feedings began, there is great skepticism about the official reports, and a growing concern about her health.

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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.