The Margaret Sanger Papers


Byrne, Ethel Higgins (1883-1955)

Nurse, younger sister of Margaret Sanger. Married Jack Byrne (1901), separated (1911), two children. Four years younger than Margaret Sanger, Ethel Higgins was the most rebellious of the Higgins girls as a child. At 18 she eloped with her Corning, NY boyfriend and had two children, but soon found herself in an unhappy marriage with a husband who drank too much and earned too little. In 1911, she abandoned her husband, left her children with their paternal grandparents and joined Margaret Sanger in New York City. Following her older sister's path, she entered nursing school at Mt. Sinai Hospital, received her degree and was taken on as a staff nurse. She also met and became the common-law wife of writer/editor Robert A. Parker. Byrne, however, was often in financial straights and received financial assistance from Margaret; she also periodically moved in the Sangers. In 1913, she joined them in Truro, MA, where she took care of Sanger's three children while Margaret Sanger was in Boston doing research on birth control. She also helped care for them during Sanger's 1914-15 exile abroad and helped nurse Peggy Sanger when the child came down with pneumonia in November of 1915. In October 1916 Ethel Byrne joined Sanger in opening America's first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Arrested and indicted along with Sanger and their assistant, Fania Mindell, Byrne's trial was held first. In 1917, she was convicted of violating the New York State Comstock Law and was sentenced to thirty days in Blackwell's Island prison. Emulating the protest tactics of militant British suffragettes, she went on a hunger strike and had to be forcibly fed. Increasingly weak and ill, Byrne's sentence was finally commuted by Governor Charles Whitman after pleas from Margaret Sanger and several prominent women. Although Byrne's hunger strike garnered great publicity for the cause of birth control, and also enhanced the renown of her sister, she was angry at Margaret Sanger for securing her early release by promising that Byrne would never break this law again. After this, Byrne was no longer an active participant in the birth control movement, and the two sisters would never again be as close as they were before. Byrne went to stay at Margaret Sanger's Truro, MA house to care for their ailing father, Michael Higgins. She also returned to her nursing career, which she continued until her death in Truro from a heart attack.
References: Ellen Chesler, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America, (1992); Madeleine Gray, Margaret Sanger: A Biography of The Birth Control Champion (1979); James Reed, From Private Vice to Public Virtue (1978); and Margaret Sanger, An Autobiography (1938).