Sex Side of Life: Mary Ware Dennett's Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education

Sex Side of Life: Mary Ware Dennett's Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education

by Constance Chen, Mary Ware Demmett
     
 
The publication of Constance M. Chen's "The Sex Side of Life" rescued from obscurity the life and accomplishments of an extraordinary woman: Mary Ware Dennett, suffragette, peace activist, and crusader for the right to obtain and distribute information about contraception. In her battle to make birth control information accessible to all, Dennett tangled both with

Overview

The publication of Constance M. Chen's "The Sex Side of Life" rescued from obscurity the life and accomplishments of an extraordinary woman: Mary Ware Dennett, suffragette, peace activist, and crusader for the right to obtain and distribute information about contraception. In her battle to make birth control information accessible to all, Dennett tangled both with reluctant Congressmen and Margaret Sanger. At a time when family-planning information and Draconian communication laws are at the center of national debates, this biography is as timely and important as ever.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Suffragist, pacifist in WWI, artisan in America's Arts and Crafts movement, mother, advocate of sex education, Mary Ware Dennett (1872-1947) launched the nation's first birth control organization, the National Birth Control League, in 1915. She fought to make contraceptive information available to everyone, a stance that put her at odds with her arch rival, Margaret Sanger, whose "doctor's only" bill submitted to Congress would have empowered a male medical elite to supervise all birth control knowledge. Dennett's YWCA-endorsed pamphlet, "The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People," was judged obscene under the Comstock Act, and in 1929 this Boston-bred, 57-year-old grandmother was convicted in a sensational criminal trial of sending indecent material through the mail, a decision reversed on appeal. Her 13-year marriage to well-connected, lofty, arrogant architect William Hartley Dennett ended in a scandalous divorce in 1913, after he virtually moved into his married lover's house under the same roof as her physician husband. Mary won legal custody of their two sons, but her ex's refusal to pay child support left her destitute. This is a gripping, timely biography of an unjustly forgotten feminist pioneer. Chen is a founding editor of Men's Journal. Author tour. (June)
Library Journal
Chen, a Harvard graduate and one of the founding editors of Men's Journal, has, with her first book, saved one of America's leading female figures from undeserved obscurity. Her excellent, well-researched, and well-written biography of Mary Ware Dennett is the first in-depth study of the influential birth-control and sex-education advocate. Dennett was also variously involved with other movements, including American Arts and Crafts, single-tax socialism, suffrage, free trade, peace, civil liberties (especially freedom of speech), homeopathy, and consumer protection. The trial (and ultimate vindication) regarding the "obscene" nature of her pamphlet, "The Sex Side of Life," is considered a landmark case in censorship law. Chen views Dennett's remarkable life and achievements within the economic, political, and social contexts of the times. Her book deserves wide readership. Recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/96.]-Kathleen L. Atwood, Pomfret Sch. Lib., Ct.
Booknews
A biography of a pioneering activist in the women's suffrage, peace, and contraception movements, whose 1915 pamphlet The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People, sparked a landmark censorship case. Details her personal experiences, including a divorce and custody battle, and her conflicts with congressmen and those who should have been her allies, such as Margaret Sanger. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
This first book by a founding editor of Men's Journal is an impressively researched biography of an undersung leader in the American birth control movement.

Mary Ware Dennett was at the forefront of several reform movements of the early 20th century, including the suffragist movement and feminism. Unlike her rival birth control activist, Margaret Sanger, who courted publicity shamelessly, Dennett is not well known; this is the first biography of her. Dennett's dedication to sex education and birth control evolved out of her own experience. Suffering serious physical consequences form the births of three children, Dennett was advised by doctors not to have any more, yet they never mentioned contraception; Dennett and her husband stopped having sex altogether. Her husband fell in love with another woman; their custody battle and divorce trial were widely publicized. Devastated by the breakup of her family, Dennett threw herself into suffrage work. In 1915, unable to find for her sons material on sexuality that was neither moralizing nor overly clinical, she wrote a pamphlet called "The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People." This short work became quite popular and was distributed even by the conservative YMCA. But it led to Dennett's conviction in a celebrated 1929 trial after the pamphlet was seized under the Comstock laws. Chen explores Dennett's emotional and political lives with equal care, quoting liberally from revealing correspondence, such as love letters between Dennett and her husband. Unfortunately, though, Chen pushes her own moral agenda as heavy-handedly as any early 20th century reformer. Writing, for example, about the Dennetts' marital problems, Chen charges, "After a few generations, such dissolution of the family could only mean the ultimate disintegration of civilized life."

Despite her gracelessly wielded value judgments, Chen has made a strong contribution to the history of birth control, feminism, and sexual mores.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781565841321
Publisher:
New Press, The
Publication date:
06/28/1996
Pages:
400
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.47(d)

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