Ethel Byrne, along with her sister Margaret Sanger, founded the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916. Ethel and Margaret grew up in Corning, New York. Their mother, Anne, suffered from tuberculosis. Contraception, in addition to being illegal, was unheard of in the girls’ devout Catholic neighborhood. Anne became pregnant eighteen times and had seven miscarriages. She ultimately delivered eleven children and was further incapacitated with tuberculosis after each pregnancy.
Ethel and Margaret’s father, Michael Higgins, was a tombstone engraver by trade, but spent much of his time studying politics and social issues. The family lived in increasing poverty with each additional child. Their economic situation worsened when Higgins invited one of his heroes to speak in town. His hero happened to be an agnostic as well as a socialist. The local priest was horrified, and advised his parish to shun Higgins like the devil himself and to purchase their tombstones elsewhere. When Ethel was in her early teens her mother died of tuberculosis. She and Margaret spent the next few years caring for their father.
Ethel became a nurse and helped her sister (also a nurse) distribute information about contraception through a weekly magazine called The Woman Rebel and through a pamphlet titled “What Every Girl Should Know.” Until 1965, states could pass laws (known as
Comstock Laws) that made distributing this type of information as well as the use of birth control methods in some states a crime. While Margaret had been arrested for obscenity stemming from the magazine, the charges had been dismissed. But when the sisters opened their clinic in Brooklyn in 1916, they were treated far more harshly.
After they had treated 500 patients, police raided the clinic on the tenth day of its operation and arrested Ethel, Margaret, and a third founder, Eania Mindell. Ethel was the first of the three to go to trial in 1917 and she was sentenced to 30 days in the women’s workhouse on Blackwell’s Island. Ethel decided to go on a work and hunger strike during her sentence to garner publicity for the birth control movement. When she got to prison, the warden’s wife assigned her a job waiting tables and cleaning the warden’s quarters. Ethel refused and began her hunger strike. She issued statements to the papers every day. The publicity increased when the warden issued an order that she be force-fed. After 185 hours of the hunger strike, Ethel became the first woman in U.S. history to be force-fed in prison. The governor of New York, Charles Whitman, offered Ethel leniency if she would promise not to violate the Comstock Laws again. Ethel refused. Margaret, however, told the governor that she would ensure that Ethel did not work in the birth control movement again. Ethel was released from prison and, as her sister promised, did no more work for the movement. Ethel lived into her 70s while Margaret continued to fight for contraceptive provision and information. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled that laws like the one that sent Ethel to prison are unconstitutional.
SEE ALSO: Access to health care; Birth control; Comstock Laws; Pregnancy; Sanger, Margaret