On April 4, 1872, Livonia Coffin and George Whitefield Ware, Worcester, Massachusetts residents, welcomed their second child, daughter Mary Coffin Ware. Although the women’s suffrage movement started in the United States in 1848, women still did not have the right to vote in 1872. And married women could not own their own property, keep their own wages, or sign a contract. These conditions deeply affected Mary’s life. She was convicted because the sex side of life was judged obscene.
In 1882, Mary’s father died of cancer. Her mother moved the family to Boston to be closer to her mother’s relatives. But finding a job to support the family proved impossible. So Mary’s mother chaperoned young ladies traveling to Europe for pay. Unable to take Mary (or her other children) with on those trips, Mary and her siblings stayed with her aunt and went to public school.
Lucia Ames Mead, Mary’s aunt, was active in social reform, women’s voting rights, and advocated for world peace. In time, this influence would reveal itself in Mary’s life.
Mary graduated from her high school, Miss Capen’s School for Girls in Northampton, Massachusetts, and went to the School of Art and Design at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There she studied textile design and won prizes for tapestry and leatherwork projects.
She graduated from art school with honors in 1894 and moved to Philadelphia, where she lead the department of decoration and design at the Drexel Institute of Art for the next three years. After she left the Drexel Institute, she studied antique leatherwork in Spain and Italy. When she returned to the U.S., she settled in Boston where she organized art exhibitions for the Society of Arts and Crafts.
She met William Hartley Dunnett, an architect, in 1894 and married him on January 20, 1900. After they married, she wrote and gave lectures about arts and crafts, became a board member of the Society for Arts and Crafts, and took part in Boston social reform groups
The birth of their first son in December 1900 almost killed Mary. In 1903, Mary’s second pregnancy was also difficult. The child lived for only three weeks.
Their third child was born in 1905. Her labor was so difficult she had to quit her work in order to recover. The doctor advised them Mary should have no more children.
Mary and Hartley were ignorant of birth control. Abstinence was the only method either of them knew.
Mary’s husband, Hartley, began working on a house for a doctor and his wife in 1904. Over time, he developed a very close relationship with the doctor’s wife.
In 1908, Mary took a job as the field secretary of the Massachusetts Suffrage Association in Springfield, Massachusetts. She spoke to individuals and groups about suffrage, organized events, and recruited new members.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association in New York City, New York, elected Dennett as correspondence secretary in 1910. She accepted the position and moved to New York.
Mary grew concerned about the affect Hartley had on their children and filed for divorce in 1912. He sued for custody of the children. It was scandalous and therefore a popular topic in the newspapers.
In 1913, the court granted Mary the custody of her children and finalized her divorce from Hartley. The court required Hartley to pay child support. He claimed he did not make enough money to do so and refused to pay.
A New Life
Also in 1913, Mary accepted an offer to lead the Twilight Sleep Association. Twilight sleep referred to the doctors using anesthesia (scopolamine and morphine) during labor to induce a semi-conscious state in mothers-to-be during deliveries. Twilight sleep reduced the use of forceps, which reduced infant mortality and the risk of injury and infection to both mother and infant. She served as president, then Vice President of the Association.
During this time, she struggled to support her sons and incurred many debts.
When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, Mary volunteered for the Women’s Peace Party in New York that opposed the war.
In 1915, Mary created a pamphlet to answer some of her eldest son’s questions about sex. She titled the work, “The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People.” In the pamphlet, she discussed that the books she’d read were vague and misleading. The vagueness and misinformation resulted from state and federal obscenity laws that limited the amount of detail that could be published about sex education.
She wrote that the sex education books she’d read also portrayed the sex as fearful or shameful act. Her twenty-four-page pamphlet included clear information about sex and realistic descriptions of intercourse. Once friends learned of the pamphlet, they wanted one to help teach their children about sex.
Mary became more involved in the birth control movement. Working with Jessie Ashley and Clara Gruening Stillman, they established the National Birth Control League in 1915 to increase knowledge about and access to birth control.
Mary lobbied New York’s federal congressmen to repeal the Comstock Act. She wanted Congress to remove the words “prevention of contraception” from federal obscenity statutes. Her efforts brought the birth control movement to the attention of the media and birth control activist Margaret Sanger.
Sanger had left the country from 1914 to 1915 to avoid prosecution for writing a radical (and co-called obscene) newspaper called The Woman Rebel.
Mary disapproved of Sanger breaking the law in order to bring attention to it. And Sanger thought Mary’s efforts to get free birth control for everyone was doomed to fail. Sanger believed working through state governments and allowing doctors to prescribe birth control had the best chance for success.
More Publicity Woes
Mary’s name was in the papers again during 1915, thanks to a public invitation from her ex-husband, Hartley, his partner, Margaret Chase, and her husband. They wanted her to join them and form a “quadrangle” of love. Mary feared the negative publicity and notoriety she gained from her ex-husband’s unwanted proposal would adversely affect the organizations she worked with.
For the next two years, Mary shifted her focus to women’s suffrage and the anti-war movement. But as the war dragged on, and President Woodrow Wilson supported the war efforts, resistance to her anti-war campaigns led to her return to birth control activism.
In 1918, Mary became executive secretary for the National Birth Control League in New York City. The following February, the editor of the Medical Review of Reviews agreed to publish her pamphlet, “The Sex Side of Life.” Unable to get support from New York politicians, Mary resigned from the Nation Birth Control League in 1919.
Later that year, Mary founded the Voluntary Parenthood League. The League’s goals were to remove birth control from obscenity laws by lobbying the federal government and to better educate parents about teaching sex education to their children.
Mary campaigned and lobbied federal officials to exempt information about birth control from obscenity laws. She even appealed to the solicitor of the US Postal Services, saying that since they couldn’t open all mail and check it, post offices could not enforce the Comstock Act.
The Post Office Department banned circulation of any mail that contained Mary’s “The Sex Side of Life.”
Mary resigned from the Voluntary Parenthood League in 1925.
After her resignation, Mary continued to receive mail from parents asking about birth control and sex education. The post office thwarted her attempts to send those people her pamphlet, “The Sex Side of Life.” The common method of placing mail in unsealed envelopes allowed the post office to open and confiscate all copies of her pamphlet. So Mary began sending the pamphlet in sealed envelopes.
Mary published Birth Control Laws: Shall We Keep Them, Change Them, or Abolish Them in 1926. The book described the state and federal laws and Mary’s arguments to change the laws.
In 1928, Mary had a court case filed against her. An alleged woman named Mrs. Carl Miles, who said she received Mary’s pamphlet by mail, which violated the federal code preventing mailing of obscene literature. Once again, Mary faced unwanted publicity.
Stories about the fifty-three-year-old grandmother appeared in most newspapers in the country.”Jstor.com
On April 23, 1929, a jury composed entirely of middle-aged family men convicted Mary for sending obscene materials through the mail. She faced up to a five thousand dollar fine or five years in jail or both.
It fined her three hundred dollars.
She refused to pay.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sponsored her, supported her pamphlet, saying it was not obscene but an important educational tool. The court of appeals learned that Mrs. Carl Miles was a fake character created by the post office to trick Mary into mailing a copy of her pamphlet so they could file the case.
On March 3, 1930, the appellate court ruled that because Mary’s intent was educational and not obscene, the pamphlet did not qualify as obscene. Circulation of “The Sex Side of Life” increased after the original ruling was reversed.
Death and Legacy
Mary Coffin Ware Dennett died in Valatie, New York on July 25, 1947. She was 75.
From 1929 to 1930, most of the nation knew about Mary and her trial. They knew she was convicted because “The Sex Side of Life” was judged obscene. They knew about her appeal. What no one knew was that “United States v. Dennett would ultimately prove to be a landmark censor ship case that paved the way for dramatic changes in the legal definition of obscenity.”
What if Mary Dennett originally had pleaded guilty?
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