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."

Comstockery had by then suppressed both information about contraception and access to simple though hardly foolproof techniques for achieving it. These ranged from coitus interruptus and douching (Comstock, given enforcement powers by both the U.S. Postal Service and New York State, prosecuted pharmacists who did nothing more than sell syringes) to condoms and vaginal pessaries that combined known spermicidal substances with sponges or other materials to block the cervix. Such devices were advertised in the United States until the Comstock legislation outlawed them, though they continued, ironically, to be available in England, the home of Victorianism.

Chen does not explore the reasons for the growth of Comstockery, but Ellen Chesler, in her 1992 biography of Margaret Sanger, Woman of Valor, explained the suppression of birth control and other sexual information in the late nineteenth century as part of a "conservative social backlash that followed the Civil War." Describing a not wholly unfamiliar political situation, Chesler wrote,

Native white Americans concerned about the apparent threat to their hegemony from European immigrants and free blacks took refuge under a banner of social purity and religious orthodoxy. They were joined by religious fundamentalists, physicians looking to secure their status, and self-proclaimed feminists who believed they were promoting their own autonomy by regulating sexual behavior and by attacking pornography, alcohol, and vice.

Anthony Comstock was thus in the right place at the right time, and succeeded in passing obscenity laws that placed new prohibitions on sexual information and vastly expanded existing ones. Comstock's powers were so great, Chen relates, that he was able to jail the author of a newspaper editorial deploring society's treatment of unwed mothers.

INSPIRED to commit herself to the fight for birth control and against Comstockian repression, Dennett unfortunately soon found herself embroiled in a bitter rivalry with Sanger that weakened the movement and ultimately defeated Dennett both personally and professionally. Chen writes that Sanger was a ruthlessly ambitious, rigidly controlling, "myopic and intolerant" egomaniac who could not brook competition. When Dennett founded the National Birth Control League, and later the Voluntary Parenthood League (VPL), and began to lobby for the repeal of state and federal bans on birth-control devices and information, Sanger did all she could to sabotage the effort. At this point, whether on principle or for reasons of political expediency, Sanger favored an "elitist" approach to legislative reform, a "doctors only" bill that gave the medical establishment control of contraceptive devices and information. Dennett, unwavering in her belief in both free speech and reproductive autonomy, insisted on a "clean repeal" of the birth-control ban.

Neither bill ever passed. But Dennett, who worked almost exclusively on the legislative strategy, emerged from the struggle demoralized and, as she wrote to her friend the British sex educator Marie Stopes, having barely escaped a nervous breakdown.

My six years of stiff worrisome work in the VPL sapped my vitality a good deal; especially did the things which went on behind the scenes tax my endurance. This combined with some strenuous personal problems broke my resistance.

Chen's harsh view of Margaret Sanger is not entirely new: both Chesler's biography and Linda Gordon's classic 1976 study of birth control, Woman's Body, Woman's Right, described Sanger's headstrong and dictatorial personality. But Chen's portrait is so severe that it will most likely be controversial, given Sanger's emergence as the clear victor both in her contest with Dennett and in her immediate political strategy for birth control -- not to mention her current canonization as a reproductive-rights prophet. What Chen ignores, of course, is that Sanger, however numerous were her defects, had genius. Her early direct-action civil disobedience against the Comstock law, resulting in a number of highly publicized sojourns in jail, added fire to the cause in ways that Dennett's more polite legal and organizational strategies never did. And however questionable may have been some of the deals Sanger made along the way, ultimately she did create an organization, Planned Parenthood, that grew to be one of the most effective providers of reproductive health care in the United States, as well as an important advocate for the still-embattled cause of reproductive freedom in the United States. Dennett's legacy is less visible: no lasting organization is associated with her name. Soon after a crushing legislative defeat in 1925, Dennett retired from public life, exhausted and disheartened. She lived until 1947, still writing articles and letters, and sitting on the boards of various public-interest organizations.

The most sobering aspect of Chen's story goes beyond the personal failings of these two remarkable women to suggest how their differences over strategy slowed the nation's rejection of Comstockery. (It was not until the Supreme Court's 1965 decision in Griswold v. Connecticut that access to contraceptives and contraceptive information was established as a constitutional right, at least for married couples; in reality, of course, condoms were furtively available, despite state-law bans.) Indeed, the self-defeating rivalry between Sanger's American Birth Control League and Dennett's Voluntary Parenthood League was only one instance of the chronic infighting that characterized virtually all the movements Dennett embraced, and that plague like movements to this day. Chen's book does not really analyze these issues, and cannot compete with Chesler's or Gordon's on the level of historical analysis.

is also disappointing in its relatively abbreviated treatment of Dennett's prosecution for obscenity and its aftermath -- an important occurrence, for the appellate decision in United States v. Dennett signaled the unraveling of Comstockery as a matter of constitutional law. A year after Judge Hand's decision the federal courts dismissed another obscenity case, this one against Dennett's friend Marie Stopes (U.S. v. "Married Love"), and in 1936 a federal court ruled that a statute derived from the original Comstock law could not be used to bar the import of contraceptives for legitimate medical use, thus essentially supplying by judicial interpretation the "doctors only" exemption that Sanger had been seeking legislatively (U.S. v. One Package Containing 120, more or less, Rubber Pessaries to Prevent Conception). Meanwhile, in 1933 Judge John M. Woolsey had liberated James Joyce's Ulysses from the U.S. Customs Service's obscenity ban, in a memorably literary opinion observing that the effect of Joyce's novel was more "emetic" than "aphrodisiac" and that "in respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of [Joyce's] characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season spring." After those decisions it was only a matter of time before official censorship in the United States began to recede and before the figure of Anthony Comstock became more ridiculous than respectable in the public mind.

Yet even in an era glutted with commercial speech and imagery exploiting sex, Comstock's shadow is still with us. His federal obscenity law remains on the books, largely intact. To be sure, the Supreme Court over the past forty years has laboriously narrowed what the law covers, so that now only "hardcore pornography" is criminalized. But the definition of what is proscribed is still so vague that in the past few years prosecutors have charged art in museums, literature, and social commentary under obscenity laws -- perhaps the most notorious example being the Cincinnati prosecution of a museum director in 1990 for exhibiting photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. In addition, the relative narrowness of the Supreme Court's obscenity test has led Comstock's present-day equivalents to fashion laws against "indecency" -- a much broader category of speech about sex which encompasses images or writings that may have substantial literary, artistic, or other value. In February, President Bill Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act, making it a crime to post any "indecent" words or images in cyberspace if a person under age eighteen might see them. (A federal court struck down the law in June, and the government has appealed to the Supreme Court.) Our current Congress is returning to Comstockery by increasingly fashioning laws that ban "lewd, lascivious, filthy, and indecent" speech. Mary Ware Dennett's battles are, evidently, far from over.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1996; A Birth-Control Crusader; Volume 278, No. 4; pages 116 - 121.