To the Death: A Historical Snapshot of Feminists Who Took it to the Extreme

Margaret Sanger. Ethyl Byrne. Genora Johnson Dollinger.

There are women who have dedicated their lives – even risked their lives – for the cause of the women’s movement. Publishing, speaking publicly, and hunger strikes are some of the ways that feminists have placed the greater good of many before their own needs.

Margaret Sanger

In the excerpt from My Fight For Birth Control (in Women’s America, 370-378), Margaret Sanger reflects on her decision to give up her work as a nurse and turn instead to a life of disseminating information about birth control (375). She recalls Mrs. Sach, who died due to a self-induced abortion and how had this woman have available contraceptive information this likely would not have happened to this mother and many others in similar circumstances. She wished to improve the lives of struggling families. Following this, Margaret Sanger committed herself to researching, developing, and sharing birth control information.

In 1918 in New York State, Section 1142 of the law made it illegal to give information to prevent contraception (375). Although Section 1145 allowed physicians to provide this advice, Sanger was unable to find a physician willing to work with her to challenge this law. Challenging the law was inherent with risk. Margaret and her supporters faced arrest and imprisonment and eventually a police squad raided their Brownsville Clinic and plain-clothed officers took Sanger and an associate to prison (376).

Ethyl Byrne, Margaret’s sister, was not at the clinic at the time of the arrests. Her arrest followed the others (376) and it is her commitment that I consider here. Byrne, a trained nurse who shared the work of “advising, explaining, and demonstrating to the women how to prevent conception” (376), took her dedication to the issue further than the others did. Upon her arrest, she declared a hunger strike (377). Jeopardizing her own health and ultimately her life, she realized that drastic measures would offer the issue the attention required to bring change to this section of the law. Byrne believed that the greater good for all women, and hence their families, would be served by her sacrifice. After four days of refusing food, the court ordered her forcibly fed (378).

Sanger quotes Byrne (via her attorney) saying, “With eight thousand deaths a year in New York State from illegal operations on women, one more death won’t make much difference” (377). Illegal abortions were taking a real toll on the lives of women. News about Byrne’s condition was reported on the front page of the newspapers (377), achieved the effect of gaining attention to the outdated law, and garnered support for the cause.

Byrne’s condition deteriorated to critical and Sanger negotiated her release. Byrne was prepared to die for what she believed in, a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her body.

Other women also risked their lives for the cause of the women’s movement. Genora Johnson Dollinger wrote an account of her experience in the 1930s with the Women’s Emergency Brigade. Workers suffered from difficult working conditions and their attempts to unionize were not well received. Dollinger was compelled not only to join the strikers but also to organize actions that she felt used her abilities and contributed to the movement to unionize. Dollinger began a sign painting department, faced police against tear gas, clubs, and gunfire, fought alongside the men with “rocks and car door hinges” (433) and inspired other women to join the fight (434). Her motivational words rallied the women. This increase in strength and numbers was the force that won success for the strikers that night.

This had been a dangerous undertaking: Dollinger describes the gunfire around them and the serious injuries received by some of the strikers. In spite of this, Dollinger refused suggestions that she retreat to safety with the other women (434). (Hear interviews thanks to Sherna Berger Gluck and the Women’s History Project here) Following this success Dollinger organized the Women’s Emergency Brigade. The women in this unit were fundamental to the successes of the strikers. With song, a wall of bodies, and intelligent arguments as distraction for the police, the women of the Emergency Brigade saved the gate and allowed the union to close “the huge and valuable Plant 4 with another sit-down strike” (435). The action that night set the stage for negotiations between the union and General Motors, and the eventual “[recognition] of unions in GM plants across the nation” (435).

Byrne and Dollinger were both willing to risk their lives for their causes: Byrne for women’s reproductive rights, Dollinger for workers’ rights to unionize.

Hunger strikes were among the tactics used by both British and American suffragists. Hunger strikes were a prisoner’s way of having some control over her circumstances and showed her dedication to the cause. The unanimous decision to go on hunger strike upon imprisonment showed the suffragists commitment and their willingness to persevere until women won the right to vote. Not only were there obvious risks of dehydration and starvation, there were also serious risks associated with force feedings.

Byrne and Sanger grew up with the ideology of Victorian womanhood. Domesticity and childbearing were considered the ideal roles for women. Most women lived their lives in service, according to the desires of their fathers, and later their husbands. A woman’s own desire was considered equivalent to what was good for the family and her community/society. As women were considered morally superior, their engagement in community charitable acts developed to include assisting prostitutes and the poor, and joining the abolitionist, temperance, and suffrage movements. Growing up at this time, the two sisters, Byrne and Sanger, would have been greatly influenced by this and likely encouraged to help others. Both took training as nurses. Both would have been aware of the socially constructed responsibilities that, as women, they held for the welfare of those around them. Possessed with the idea of women’s right to control their own reproduction, it is reasonable that these women would seek to help those who did not access to contraception. Upon arrest, Byrne had several options. She could (i) give up the fight, (ii) go willingly to the workhouse and continue the fight upon her release, or (iii) dedicate herself further to the cause, at the risk of her life. Although extreme, Byrne’s choice was automatic. Byrne recognized that many women were dying from unsafe abortions and knew that this would continue until women had access to safe and reliable birth control. Socialized to consider the needs of others, her choice was not radical for her times.

Without a fight herself, Dollinger would continue to live under difficult working conditions. The strikers had everything to gain and in comparison, nothing more to lose but their lives. For Dollinger, this risk was worth it.
There are differences between the strategies and their actors. Dollinger was a working-class woman. Byrne and Sanger were middleclass women with certain privileges. Their status would have placed great pressure on them to display the expected social behaviour for women of their class. This would have had some influence on their choice of strategy – and their potential alternatives. Non-violent action was expected of them. Dollinger was a working class woman, and her action came twenty years after Byrne. She lived under slightly different social conditions, but her reality, that of a working woman, placed different pressures on her behaviour (although values of Victorian womanhood were still pervasive). Each woman’s strategy considered her opponent and the most effective means of persuasion under the circumstances.

These women seem to have acted altruistically. In doing so, they perpetuate the idea of women as selfless, caring, nurturers, willing to sacrifice their very beings for others while showing at the same time that women are certainly not weak and defenseless. While selfless giving seems to be a good strategy for fighting injustice, it is problematic because of the stereotype of women as martyrs that it creates. It is important, however, to recognize the lengths to which women will go to fight for justice.

Works Cited

Kerber, Linda. 2004. Women’s America, 6th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Further Reading

Scholarship about feminist ‘martyrs’ is not easy to find. Because of this, the following annotated bibliography focuses on resources that contribute to the understanding of Byrne’s and Dollinger’s passions and the challenges they faced, as well as information about other women who took on similar challenges. It also includes some sources to encourage further thought about women leaders, particularly who steps forward and why.

Commire, A., ed. 1999. Women in World History: a biographical encyclopedia. Volume 13. Waterford, CT: Yorkin Publications: 778-785.

This reference work provides details about Margaret Sanger, beginning with her childhood and education. It provides background to her later activism regarding women’s reproductive rights and provides dates that were missing in her own recounting of the Brownsville Clinic. It also provides information about what later followed the police raids on the clinic: her activism in organizing birth control clinics around the world and her activity as the first president of Planned Parenthood. It was very difficult to find information about her sister Ethyl Byrne, beyond what Sanger wrote in My Fight for Birth Control. As they worked together to open and run the clinic, inferences may be drawn between the lives of the sisters until information about Byrne, independent of her famous sister, is found.

Crane, V. 2001. “The Very Pictures of Anarchy: Women in the Oshkosh Woodworkers’ Strike.” Wisconsin Magazine of History 84 (3): 44-59.

Women’s roles as street fighters in the Oshkosh strike parallel that of Dollinger and her associates and provide another example of women challenging the ideals of Victorian womanhood to improve working conditions for themselves and their families. Women in the Oshkosh Woodworkers’ Strike acted as strikers, strikebreakers, and in support of the men in their families but the strongest action came from the group who organized as a “mob” to harass scab workers as they entered and left the mill. The women fought with eggs in handkerchiefs, with pouches of sand, with sacks of salt and pepper, and with clubs. This article shows that Dollinger and the Emergency Brigade had predecessors whose struggles and successes were inspirational to the efforts of future women.

Dollinger, G. 1987. “I Want to be a Human Being and Think for Myself.” American Socialist. March 22, 2006.

Dollinger gave this speech at the 50th anniversary of the strike. In it, she reflects on how the women’s contribution was devalued following the success of the strike by authors like the previous speaker, Henry Kraus, who she challenges for misrepresenting the women of the Emergency Brigade. Dollinger reminds us of the influence of those who record history and calls for recognition of women’s contributions here and elsewhere. This piece shows how the risks women took were ignored and forgotten once the union had its demands met. It also provides further details regarding what took place and what the Emergency Brigade accomplished in 1937.

Falcon. 2003. “Only Strong Women Stayed: Women Workers and the National Floral Workers Strike, 1968-1969.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 24.2&3: 140-154.

These women combine elements of the histories of Dollinger and Byrne. Like Dollinger they protested their working conditions, but instead they chose non-violent methods of demonstrating in ways similar to Ethyl Byrne, chaining themselves to a fence to form a picket line. Their experience with tear gas, and their willingness to jeopardize their lives show again women’s willingness to fight against injustice. This example, from 1968, shows that women continue to endanger themselves for their causes, and that causes continue to present themselves.

Freedman, E. 2002. No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women. New York: Ballantine Books.

Freedman’s book is useful because it provides a history of feminism, including background to both the issue of reproductive rights and of women in labour unions. From page 257, in a section called “The Sexualization of Western Cultures” Freedman describes the characteristics and responsibilities of Victorian Motherhood that would have been a strong influence, especially for Byrne and Sanger. In Chapter 8, “Workers and Mothers: Feminist Social Policies,” Freedman delves into the history of women’s involvement with labour unions, from mill girls in the US to lace workers in Great Britain. She includes some global perspective, also including experiences of women in Germany, France, and Russia, China, and South Africa.

Polnick, B. et al. 2004. “Groundbreaking Women: Inspirations and Trailblazers.” Advancing Women in Leadership, No. 17, Winter.

Polnick et al. investigate the characteristics of women like Sanger, Byrne, and Dollinger who become female leaders. By studying female groundbreakers, they hope to address the needs of women in today’s leadership roles. They identified several characteristics common to the women of their study, including courage, resilience, self-efficaciousness, vision, passion, a belief in family first, and advocacy for the under-represented. Sanger, Byrne, and Dollinger are no exception to these characteristics. Understanding the characteristics of groundbreakers gives insight into the personalities of historical figures. This article helps the reader identify and draw parallels between important women in history.

Richards, C. and N. Van Der Gaag. November 2004. Women Who Have Moved Worlds. New Internationalist 373. March 22, 2006.

This website shows that women around the world continue to jeopardize their lives for justice. The list includes Medha Patkar, who, like Ethyl Byrne, almost died during a hunger strike. This website shows that women continue to sacrifice themselves as an alternative to directing violence outward at others. Links to more information about these women would make this site more useful.

Yalom, M. 2001. “A History of the Wife.” New York: Perennial.

Chapter Five in Yalom’s book describes the Victorian woman in America and chapter Eight includes discussion of Margaret Sanger’s work. Yalom’s work shows how the efforts of Byrne and Sanger influenced relationships, particularly the emerging concept of companionate marriage, and the idea of women as sexually passionate individuals.


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