Dennett, Mary Ware (1872–1947)

views updated

Dennett, Mary Ware (1872–1947)

American birth control advocate, women's suffragist, and pacifist whose 1929 landmark court case helped redefine the legal definition of obscenity. Pronunciation: DEN-et. Born Mary Coffin Ware on April 4, 1872, in Worcester, Massachusetts; died of myocarditis in a nursing home in Valatie, New York, on July 25, 1947; daughter of George Whitefield Ware (a wool merchant) and Livonia Coffin (Ames) Ware; niece of Lucia Ames Mead ; attended Boston public schools, Miss Capen's School for Girls, Northampton, Massachusetts, and Boston Museum of Fine Arts; married William Hartley Dennett, on January 20, 1900 (divorced 1913); children: three boys, two of whom, Carleton and Devon, survived past childhood.

Taught decoration and design, Drexel Institute in Philadelphia (1894–97); opened handicraft shop in Boston (1898); councilor, Boston Society of Arts and Crafts (1899–1905); served as field secretary of Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association (1908–10); named corresponding secretary, National American Woman Suffrage Association (1910–14); served as field secretary, American Union Against Militarism (1916); founded, then directed, National Birth Control League (1915–18) and Voluntary Parenthood League (1919–25); published "The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People" in the Medical Review of Reviews (1918); was editor for Birth Control Herald (1922–25); wrote Birth Control Laws (1926); won celebrated obscenity case, U.S. v. Dennett (1930); wrote Who's Obscene? (1930) and The Sex Education of Children (1931); named chair, World Federalists (1941–44).

During the spring of 1929, Mary Ware Dennett became a reluctant national celebrity. Then a 53-year-old grandmother, her ordeal as the defendant in what would turn out to be a landmark free speech case received extensive coverage in the popular press. Dennett had been active in a variety of reform causes, including the women's suffrage, peace, and birth-control movements, but hers had hardly been a household name before the trial. But as she sat in a Brooklyn, New York, courtroom on the afternoon of April 23, anxiously awaiting the jury's verdict, this was all about to change. For the next 12 months, her life remained a whirlwind of excitement and turmoil.

Mary Dennett harbored "a deep aversion to being spotlighted," though she had devoted much of her life to political activism. Born in 1872 in Worcester, Massachusetts, to George Whitefield Ware and Livonia Ames Ware , she grew up in comfortable, middle-class surroundings. Her father was a wool merchant, while her mother's side of the family included some notable reform-minded writers, including Mary's great-uncle Charles Carleton Coffin, the famous Civil War correspondent, and her aunt Lucia Ames Mead , the prominent peace activist. Mary went to public and private schools in the Boston area, attended the Boston Museum of Fine Arts school, and, upon graduation, taught decoration and design at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia from 1894 until 1897. The following year, with her sister Clara Ware , she opened a handicraft shop that sold gilded leather. The Ware sisters revived the ancient art of making guadamaciles, gilded and tooled wall hangings that formed the major handcraft of Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries. In 1900, Mary married architect William H. ("Hartley") Dennett, with whom she had three boys, including two (Carleton and Devon) who survived past childhood. Mary and Hartley separated in 1909 and divorced in 1913. Around this time, Dennett became a leading member of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association,

serving as the group's field secretary from 1908 until 1910. She then accepted election as the National American Woman Suffrage Association's (NAWSA) corresponding secretary, and she remained one of this organization's chief publicists until 1914.

Dennett was also active in the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, the single-tax movement, and, particularly after World War I broke out in 1914, the American peace movement. She served as field secretary for the American Union Against Militarism, helped found the People's Council for Peace and Democracy, and joined the New York City branch of the Woman's Peace Party. At the same time, Dennett emerged as a leader of the birth-control movement, helping to found the National Birth Control League (NBCL), and then leading the organization from 1915 until 1918. In 1919, she created the Voluntary Parenthood League (VPL), which became the principal rival of Margaret Sanger 's American Birth Control League (ABCL) during the 1920s.

Mary Dennett believed that denying individuals access to birth-control information violated First Amendment rights. Her focus on birth control as a civil liberties issue was inconsistent with Sanger's desire to pass "doctor's only" laws that would limit the distribution of birth-control information and devices to patients who consulted physicians. Recognizing that the "well-to-do educated class … obtained and utilized birth control knowledge, despite the laws," Dennett thought that the time had come for legislation to catch up with current practices and expand this "right" to all Americans.

I look forward to the day when we shall have a sex education that matches up to the time we live in, expressive as the time we live in, and as progressive as commerce and science.

—Mary Ware Dennett

The major federal anti-obscenity statute that Dennett condemned was, in fact, antiquated. Introduced in 1873 by anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock, the "Comstock law" banned from the mails any "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material and gave the postmaster general the power to identify such matter. Any writings that included information on "preventing conception" were included in the ban. Dennett's primary goal was to see these two words stricken from law, but the U.S. Congress, fearful of controversy on such a sensitive issue, refused to undertake any serious reconsideration of the postal obscenity statute.

Dennett, as head of the Voluntary Parenthood League, was openly critical of the postal service for continuing a selective, though often vigorous, enforcement of the Comstock law. It was this adversarial position that seems to have gotten her into trouble with the postmaster general who, in 1922, banned a Dennett-authored pamphlet as an obscene publication. The work in question, The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People, was a sex-education manual for children. Before it was labelled obscene, Dennett had sold thousands of copies of the 24-page booklet written initially by the single mother in 1915 as a sex-education primer for her young sons. The Sex Side of Life was somewhat more explicit than most other sex-education manuals of the period. It included four diagrams, the use of the proper medical terminology for sex organs and functions, and a clear explanation of physiological and emotional aspects of sex. It was also very popular with some schools and youth groups like the YMCA, so she continued to send it out under first-class postage in defiance of the ban.

In August 1928, Dennett sent a copy to American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) counsel Morris L. Ernst after reading an article he had written condemning censorship. He wrote back, asking if she "ever considered testing out the legality of the pamphlet in the courts." Ernst offered to take the case without compensation if Dennett wanted to fight the postal authorities in court, and she consented. Ironically, before Ernst finished devising a strategy to bring an injunction suit against the government, the Justice Department indicted Mary Dennett under the Comstock law of 1873. A post-office inspector "rigged up a decoy to order a pamphlet," which Dennett then sent to a post-office box in Grottoes, Virginia.

When the case went to trial, the sole issue, in the view of the judge, was whether or not the jury believed the sex manual offended "the common sense and modesty of the community." They decided that it did, and Dennett received a $3,000 fine. But when the birth-control advocate declared she would pay no fine, however small, and promised to appeal, the case began to receive considerable attention in newspapers and journals. Nearly every newspaper in the country covered the case. Editorial opinion was overwhelmingly sympathetic toward Mary Dennett and rebuked the government in pointed, often sarcastic, terms. A week after the trial, Dennett wrote that "support for the case is rolling up till it looks like a mountain range," and she noted that she knew of "only [a] single instance … of newspaper disparagement of me or my pamphlet," though Dennett opponents were often quoted in these articles.

On January 15, 1930, Morris Ernst presented Dennett's appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals. Labelling the issue at hand "a test case of vital importance," he warned that if the conviction stood, "it will deal a disastrous blow to the cause of sex education." His appeal was based on the argument that the Comstock law violated the First Amendment and that the pamphlet was not obscene in the first place. The position of the Justice Department was straight forward because clear precedent seemed to be on its side. The courts had long held that a work was obscene even if only one isolated excerpt "depraved and corrupted" those who were most susceptible to immoral influences (which included children).

Two months after hearing oral arguments, the Appeals Court overturned the original Dennett conviction on the grounds that the pamphlet was not obscene. As justice Augustus Hand wrote, "any incidental tendency to arouse sex impulses which such a pamphlet may perhaps have, is apart from and subordinate to its main effect. The tendency can only exist in so far as it is inherent in any sex instruction and it would seem to be outweighed by the elimination of ignorance." Thus by redefining what constituted obscene, Hand and his colleagues toppled the major legal barrier restricting meaningful sex education for children in U.S. v. Dennett.

The importance of this landmark case would go further than this, however. A series of U.S. Circuit Court cases that built on the Dennett decision, culminating in the Ulysses (the James Joyce book long banned as obscene) case, extended the definition of obscene as applied in the Dennett case to novels. No longer did the courts consider the effect of an isolated excerpt on especially susceptible persons, but instead considered "whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest."

Ironically, the Dennett decision also had an impact on the process that removed the stigma of illegality from birth-control information and devices. Citing the Dennett case, in Davis v. United States, the court ruled that "the [Comstock] statute must be given a reasonable construction," which then paved the way for Morris Ernst to argue in the Japanese Pessaries case (1936) that birth control could be medically necessary. The court agreed, with Augustus Hand again providing the rationale: the Comstock law's framers lacked adequate information about the dangers of conception and the safety of contraception, knowledge that would have led them not to include the words "preventing conception" in the statute. The justices of the U.S. Circuit Court in New York thus accomplished what Mary Dennett had sought through legislative action for two decades, though some states failed to get in line with federal case law until the mid-1960s.

Following her tumultuous year of notoriety, Mary Dennett renewed her efforts to encourage legislative action to legalize the distribution of birth-control information. She was unsuccessful, though the courts ultimately effected what politicians refused to do. In the early 1930s, Dennett actually withdrew from active organizational work within the reproductive-rights movement. Over the next 15 years, she devoted much of her attention to the American peace movement. In 1941, at the age of 69, she was elected chair of a new organization, the World Federalists. She brought the same kind of commitment to peace work that she had devoted to the campaign to fully legalize sex education and birth control. Upon her death in 1947, she left behind many decades of skilled organizational activism and a landmark court case that had helped to clarify the place of the Bill of Rights in American society.


Craig, John M., "'The Sex Side of Life': The Obscenity Case of Mary Ware Dennett," in Frontiers: A Journal of Woman Studies. Vol. 15, Fall 1995, pp. 145–166.

Dennett, Mary Ware. Who's Obscene? NY: Vanguard Press, 1930.

Gordon, Linda. Woman's Body, Woman's Right: Birth Control in America. NY: Penguin Books, 1990.

suggested reading:

Ernst, Morris, and Alan U. Schwartz. Censorship: The Search for the Obscene. NY: Macmillan, 1964.

Chesler, Ellen. Margaret Sanger: A Biography. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1992.


ACLU Cases, American Civil Liberties Archives, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton, University.

Mary Ware Dennett Papers, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

John M. Craig , Professor of History, Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, author of Lucia Ames Mead and the American Peace Movement and numerous articles on activist American women

About this article

Dennett, Mary Ware (1872–1947)

Updated About content Print Article