Ethel Byrne

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Ethel Higgins Byrne

Ethel Higgins Byrne (1883-1955) was an American progressive era radical feminist. She was the younger sister of birth control activist Margaret Sanger. Ethel and Margaret were the daughters of Michael Hennessey Higgins and Anne Higgins.[1] Ethel Byrne's daughter, Olive Byrne, was an important muse to the creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston.[2] Ethel and Margaret Sanger had a troubled relationship as reported by Jill Lepore in The Secret History of Wonder Woman. It has also been noted that Anne Higgins gave preferential treatment to Ethel, much to the dismay of her sister Margaret Sanger and that caused a rift in their relationship.[3] Ethel had a short and unhappy marriage to Jack Byrne, a glassworker.[4]

Nursing career[edit]

Ethel Byrne's background in nursing was pivotal to her activism and directly contributed to her desire to make birth control accessible to women of varying socio-economic backgrounds. Byrne was a trained nurse who assisted immigrant women in need of medical care in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn, New York in 1916.[5]

Birth control activism[edit]

Ethel Byrne was a progressive era radical feminist who advocated for women to have access to birth control. Byrne opened a birth control clinic with her sister, Margaret Sanger, and feminist activist Fania Mindell in Brooklyn in October 1916.[6] The three women advertised the services offered by the clinic by passing out flyers in different languages, including English, Yiddish and Italian.[7] Although Byrne is not widely known today, her early activism had long lasting impact on raising awareness of the importance of access to information about birth control. The arrest of Mrs. Ethel Byrne compelled a group of politically active New York women to ask for a meeting with President Woodrow Wilson to request that he contribute to overturning laws criminalizing distribution of birth control.[8]

Arrest and hunger strike[edit]

The clinic was highly controversial due to the enforcement of the Comstock Laws. Byrne and Sanger distributed pessaries and would show their clients how to use this method of contraception in direct violation of these laws.[9] After being arrested for distribution of information about birth control Byrne was sentenced to 30 days in Blackwell's Island prison.[10] She was jailed at Blackwell Island workhouse on January 22, 1917 for her activism in advocating for the legalization of birth control and subsequently went on a hunger strike.[11] Sanger was concerned her sister would lose her life as a result of this hunger strike and Byrne was force fed while serving her sentence after 185 hours without food or water.[12] As noted historian Jill Lepore reports in her compelling book The Secret History of Wonder Woman Ethel Byrne was the first female political prisoner in the United States to be subjected to force feeding.[13] Mrs. Byrne was prepared to starve herself to death in support of her cause.[14] Her case was the first of a group of cases known as the "Sanger cases" to be brought to trial.[15]

Sanger supported Byrne's activism and was quoted as saying "I didn't advise her to undertake this hunger strike, but I certainly would not tell her to end it now."[16] Although they had a falling out after this arrest, their confinement helped bring national attention to their push for the legalization of birth control.[17] It also hurt their relationship as Sanger's notoriety grew after this arrest and she was sometimes known to take credit for Ethel's infamous hunger strike.

Later years[edit]

Although her sister went on to become world-famous for her advocacy of birth control, Ethel's legacy is not well known. This is apparent on the Planned Parenthood website as it is noted Sanger opened her 1916 clinic with "her sister".[18] Ethel is not even mentioned by name and unlike her older sister is not a household name.

Ethel Byrne had a stroke and died in 1955. She did not live to see the legalization of the birth control pill as she died five years before it received FDA approval.[19]


  1. ^ Lepore, Jill (2014). The Secret History of Wonder Woman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 81. ISBN 978-0-385-35404-2. 
  2. ^ Lepore, Jill (2014). The Secret History of Wonder Woman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 
  3. ^ Baker, Jean H. (2011). Margaret Sanger: A life of Passion. New York: Hill and Wang. p. 73. ISBN 978-0-80-90-9498-1. 
  4. ^ Baker, Jean H. (2011). Margaret Sanger: A life of Passion. New York: Hill and Wang. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-80-90-9498-1. 
  5. ^ Asbell, Bernard (1995). The Pill: A Biography of the Drug That Changed the World. New York: Random House. p. 43. ISBN 0-679-41100-3. 
  6. ^ "Margaret Sanger is Dead at 82". On This Day. New York Times. Retrieved 1 September 2015. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ MRS. BYRNE WEAKER, STILL FASTS IN CELL New York Times (1857-1922); Jan 26, 1917; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times pg. 1
  9. ^ Baker, Jean H. (2011). Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion. New York: Hill and Wang. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-8090-9498-1. 
  10. ^ "Margaret Sanger Papers Project". MSPP. Retrieved 1 September 2015. 
  11. ^ Dismore, David. "Today in Herstory: Ethel Byrne Sentenced for Working at a Birth Control Clinic". Feminist Majority Foundation Blog. Feminist Majority Foundation. Retrieved 1 September 2015. 
  12. ^ "About Sanger". Margaret Sanger Papers Project. MSPP. Retrieved 1 September 2015. 
  13. ^ Lepore, Jill (2014). The Secret Life of Wonder Woman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 95. ISBN 978-0-385-35404-2. 
  14. ^ "MRS. BYRNE NOW FED BY FORCE."". New York Times (1857-1922):. ProQuest. Jan 28 1917
  15. ^ "MRS. SANGER'S AID IS FOUND GUILTY." 1917.New York Times (1857-1922), Jan 09, 11.
  16. ^ Lepore, Jill (2014). The Secret History of Wonder Woman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 94. ISBN 978-0-385-35404-2. 
  17. ^ "Margaret Sanger". Center for Disease Control. CDC. Retrieved 1 September 2015. 
  18. ^ "History & Successes". Planned Parenthood. 
  19. ^ Lepore, Jill (2014). The Secret History of Wonder Woman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 275. ISBN 978-0-385-35404-2.