Monday, August 19, 2013
Sex Side of Life by Mary Ware Dennett

With recent attempts across the country to limit access to abortion and contraception, the library’s collections are particularly relevant. More than 135 collections document the long history of women’s struggle for reproductive freedom and the history of contraception in the United States. Not least among them is the Mary Ware Dennett Collection.

Although Dennett thought organizations prone to “petrify,” she stepped forward in 1915 to establish the National Birth Control League, the first organization in the United States dedicated to providing information about birth control. An activist by temperament, Dennett was a key player in the Arts and Crafts movement, held national and a regional office in suffrage organizations, promoted the Twilight Sleep movement for painless childbirth, and was a member of the Woman’s Peace Party. She was instrumental in the creation of the American Union Against Militarism and the more radical anti-war organization, the Radical People’s Council. All of these leadership roles prepared her for the position of Executive Secretary of the Voluntary Parenthood League, successor to the National Birth Control League.

Mary Ware Dennett, ca.1892-1896. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryMary Ware Dennett, ca.1892-1896. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryMuch of Dennett’s professional life was motivated by issues in her personal life. After a humiliating public divorce from her husband Hartley, an architect and proponent of “free love,” Dennett, a single mother of two, was left to support herself and her children. Faced with educating her children about sex, she searched for literature on the topic and was disappointed and frustrated by existing publications. Dennett became determined to write her own essay—one that presented factual information, included the emotional side of sexual relations, and provided an understanding that a sex life could be a “vitalizing success.” The resulting essay served not only her immediate family, but was published in a medical review then distributed widely by organizations such as the YWCA, the YMCA, churches, New York school systems, and Union Theological Seminary.

Dennett’s most significant and long-term commitment was her attempt, as Executive Secretary of the Voluntary Parenthood League, to overthrow the Comstock laws that deemed information about contraception obscene and therefore unsuitable for distribution by US mail. Dennett’s unrelenting assault on the Postal Service led to her indictment on obscenity charges. In 1928 after receiving a letter from a seemingly desperate Philadelphia woman seeking information on birth control, Dennett mailed her the Sex Side of Life. It was seized by the Postal Service, and Mary Ware Dennett was indicted and convicted on an obscenity charge. Eventually the verdict was overturned, the obscenity standard was redefined, and the letter from the Philadelphia woman was revealed as a hoax, composed by an official in the US Postal Service. Dennett died in 1947.

To learn more about the Dennett collections at the Schlesinger Library, please see the inventories for Mary Ware Dennett Papers, MC 392; M-138 and Mary Ware Dennett Papers, MC 629.

Author: 
Marilyn Dunn, Executive Director of the Schlesinger Library