A Birth-Control Crusader

"The Sex Side of Life"--Mary Ware Dennett's Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education

Mary Ware Dennett's
Pioneering Battle
for Birth Control and
Sex Education

Order "The Sex Side of Life"

"IT may be assumed that any article dealing with the sex side of life and explaining the functions of the sex organs is capable in some circumstances of arousing lust," Judge Augustus N. Hand wrote in a 1930 opinion reversing the conviction of the birth-control advocate and social activist Mary Ware Dennett for "mailing obscene matter." The prosecution of Dennett had arisen from an informational pamphlet called "The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People," which Dennett had written for her two adolescent sons fifteen years earlier, and which had become popular among sex educators. Dennett had been convicted under an 1873 federal obscenity law, which was inspired and primarily enforced by the anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock, and which, as amended, banned the mailing of not only "every obscene, lewd, or lascivious, and every filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing, print, or other publication of an indecent character" but also any "article or thing designed, adapted, or intended for preventing conception or producing abortion."

The "Sex Side of Life" trial and appeal briefly made Dennett into a free-speech celebrity ("GRANDMOTHER FOUND GUILTY IN SEX LIFE PAMPHLET TRIAL," one headline reported) after she had spent decades as a dogged but little-known activist for women's suffrage, birth control, and other causes. Constance Chen's book, the first full-length Dennett biography, has now rescued its subject from historical obscurity. Chen was fortunate, while doing research as a Harvard writing fellow, to come upon Dennett's substantial archive, then recently donated by Dennett's older son to Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library. As a result, much previously unavailable primary source material has gone into the book.

Chen's biography is a guided tour through the major American social movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Dennett and her husband, the architect William Hartley Dennett, began as New England enthusiasts of the British-born Arts and Crafts movement of the 1890s, but after a bitter separation shattered her hopes for happiness with Hartley and their two sons, Dennett moved to New York in 1910 to take a job with the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She soon proved her organizational abilities by revitalizing a stagnant movement that had failed to win any new states for women's enfranchisement in the preceding fourteen years. Within the next three Dennett led the association to victories in Washington, California, Oregon, Arizona, Kansas, Illinois, and Alaska. Chen writes, "Although unrecognized today, Mary Ware Dennett was the turning point for the NAWSA."

In New York, Dennett became involved with Heterodoxy, a Greenwich Village group of female activists and intellectuals who gave her moral support during what must have been a tough time emotionally. (She lived alone, having reluctantly left her sons with friends and relatives in Massachusetts.) Although she led a relatively staid life in a tiny, spartan apartment on Fifty-fifth Street, Dennett immersed herself in a bohemian subculture that supported the Wobblies, touted feminism and free love, spawned the sophisticated radical magazine The Masses, and encouraged sexual experimentation. It was during this period that she wrote "The Sex Side of Life." Liberating in its affirmative, orgasmic approach to heterosexual intercourse, the work's most antique note is struck when Dennett exhorts her sons to resist the lure of masturbation, because "the sex secretions are specially needed within your body," and "you [should not] use them wastefully before you are grown."

Dennett's own sexual adventures were evidently modest. Chen only briefly mentions a disappointing affair with an unnamed married man and an entanglement with an ardent lesbian admirer, Marie Smith, which was probably unconsummated. Dennett for the most part channeled her energies into politics: in addition to her women's-rights work she found time for pacifist activism against U.S. preparedness and served as executive secretary of the meeting committee of the National Civil Liberties Bureau, the predecessor of the ACLU.

IT was in the midst of all this activity that Dennett encountered the charismatic Margaret Sanger and became involved in the birth-control movement. Contraceptive devices and information had been legal in the United States before the Comstock law; even abortion in the early months of pregnancy was legal until the mid nineteenth century. Cultural and economic changes -- in particular the onset of Victorian prudery -- led to the suppression of previously available birth-control methods and information and, indeed, of any public discussion of sexuality. One of the ironies suggested by Chen's biography is that Dennett's parents may have had more knowledge of birth control than did she and her feckless husband. Chen implies -- though explicit information is apparently lacking -- that because Mary and Hartley were ignorant of reliable contraceptive techniques, sex in the Dennett marriage ended (or very nearly so) after Mary's three painful and dangerous pregnancies (the third was life-threatening, and one child died shortly after birth).

Dennett obviously regretted this enforced celibacy and to some extent blamed it for the breakup of her marriage. Her decision, in 1915, to fix upon birth control as her major political and professional commitment was, Chen writes, impelled by her firsthand knowledge of "the dangers and sadness childbearing could bring. . . . For rich and poor alike, the mostly male medical establishment let out the secret of contraception only at its own discretion. The resulting ignorance held all women under its yoke. . . ." Thus, Chen reports, after listening to Sanger speak at an early birth-control meeting, "Dennett may have realized that birth control held staggering possibilities for improving the lives of all women."

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