Her name was Mary Ware Dennett. She was 53 years old, a veteran of the fight for suffrage in Massachusetts and the nation and a devoted anti-war activist who was divorced from an unapologetically unfaithful husband in a scandal that rocked “proper” Boston in 1912.
Post-divorce, a single mother and relocated to New York City, she wrote something to help her two preadolescent sons learn about sex. It was a small pamphlet, 24 pages worth of plain talk that used the correct names for body organs, described intercourse and masturbation, and assured her boys that “the climax of sex emotion is an unsurpassed joy, something which rightly belongs to every normal human being, a joy to be proudly and serenely experienced.”
What Dennett told her sons was one thing; what she told the public was another. Her pamphlet was loaned to other parents and then printed in a medical journal. She was deluged with requests, printed copies and sold them to organizations like the YMCA. In 1922, the federal government clamped down.
Authority for the clamp-down was the 1873 Comstock Act, which made it a crime to send “obscene” materials through the U.S. mail. Although this was the end of the Roaring Twenties, with far more permissive attitudes toward sex than the Victorian era that produced Comstock’s legislation, the law was still on the books and was still used to censure people like birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Dennett, also a contraception proponent, refused to admit the government’s authority in these matters and, defying the law, continued to reprint and send out thousands of copies of “The Sex Side of Life.”
On April 29, 1929, a New York jury of 12 middle-aged white men found Dennett guilty and she faced a five-year prison term or a $5,000 fine. Vowing not to pay the fine or allow others to do so for her, she publicly protested “the idiocy of laws which makes truth criminal.” Her attorney, Morris Ernst of the American Civil Liberties Union, working without a fee, insisted that “obscenity is a subjective thing; it exists in the minds of dirty vice hunters who are always looking for it.”
The public rallied to Mary Dennett’s side and to the ACLU’s fight against government censorship, broadening the free speech agenda to include sex education, which had not yet been thought of as political. A defense committee of over 50 prominent Americans raised funds for an appeal and in January of the next year, she was vindicated and the conviction overturned.
Having established a landmark for free speech, she went on to work for peace until she died in 1947.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at email@example.com.
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Mary Ware Dennett, “Speech at the Meeting Which Organized the National Birth
“The ACLU and Women’s Rights: Proud History, Continuing Struggle”:
“Craddock Battled Censorship to the Very End” http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2909/