Dennett, Mary Ware

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DENNETT, Mary Ware

Born 4 April 1872, Worcester, Massachusetts; died 25 July 1947, Valatie, New York

Daughter of George W. and Livonia Ames Ware; married William H. Dennett, 1900 (divorced 1913); children: three sons (one of whom died young)

Mary Ware Dennett came from an old and by her account "deadly respectable" New England family. She received her education at both public and private institutions in Massachusetts and at the school of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. At twenty-two, she began working at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, where she was to serve as head of the School of Design and Decoration. Desiring to practice what she was teaching, Dennett opened a shop with her sister in Boston. The beauty of the work they sold, particularly gilded leather, brought her to the attention of other artists in the area. They elected her a director of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts.

Her marriage to architect Dennett was at first a happy one; they had three sons, only two of whom lived to maturity. They collaborated in business; Dennett worked with her husband as a consulting home decorator. Increasingly interested in the campaign to enfranchise women, Dennett became field secretary of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association. In 1910 she was elected corresponding secretary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and spent three years in the New York City office. As organizer of the literary department, she sent out millions of pamphlets, books, and reprints of speeches advocating enfranchisement for her sex. Dennett's husband did not share her interest in suffrage, nor did he appreciate the geographical separation. The couple was divorced in 1913; she retained custody of the two boys.

It was for these boys that Dennett wrote an essay describing, in a straightforward way, human reproduction and the sexual experience. Called "The Sex Side of Life," it was published in the Medical Review of Reviews in 1918. Dennett received requests for reprints and had sent out approximately 25,000 copies when the postmaster general deemed the pamphlet obscene and banned it from the mails. Dennett, who continued to fill requests for the piece, was found to be in violation of the law by a district court. The American Civil Liberties Union took on Dennett's case, and secured a reversal of the decision in the district court of appeals. Dennett's book, Who's Obscene (1930), is a bright and fascinating account of these experiences with the courts.

Dennett's interest in sex education and birth control caused her to work with, and ultimately against, Margaret Sanger. In 1915 Sanger violated the federal obscenity statutes by publishing her magazine, the Woman Rebel. She fled to Europe to avoid prosecution. During her absence, Dennett took over the fledgling contraceptive movement, organized in the National Birth Control League (NBCL), repudiating Sanger and her tactics. Sanger returned to set up her own organization. It and the NBCL clashed throughout the 1920s.

Dennett believed that a question of basic civil liberty was involved in the birth control campaign and therefore worked through the legislature to eliminate all legal constraints on the distribution of contraceptive material. Birth Control Laws, which she wrote in 1926, explains her position. Although certainly not an objective account of the obscenity rulings existing then, the book contains a detailed and well-researched delineation of the statutes, as well as thoughtful arguments for their repeal. Dennett's final contribution to the cause was The Sex Education of Children, published in 1931.

During and after her participation in the birth control movement, Dennett was also involved in other causes. Always interested in the campaign for world peace, she worked from 1914 to 1916 to keep the U.S. out of the European war, serving as field secretary of the American Union Against Militarism. When American involvement in the conflict caused her to break with the Democratic party, she joined the radically antiwar People's Council. Years later, she was a member of the World Federalists and served as their first chairman from 1941 to 1944. Illness forced Dennett to withdraw from active participation in her beloved movements. But only death, which came in 1947 in a New York nursing home, could quench her interest in reform and social change.


Dienes, C. T., Law, Politics and Birth Control (1972). Kennedy, D., Birth Control in America (1970). Lader, L., The Margaret Sanger Story (1955). Sanger, M., An Autobiography (1938).

Reference Works:

Notable American Women, 1607-1950 (1971).

Other reference:

The Prosecution of Mary Ware for 'Obscenity' (1929).


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Dennett, Mary Ware

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