1930 March 3

Mary Ware Dennett, Birth Control, Sex Education Advocate, Vindicated


Mary Ware Dennett was a leading birth control and sex education advocate in the 1920s and 1930s. She was prosecuted under the Comstock Act (March 3, 1873) for mailing her sex education pamphlet, The Sex Side of Life. She originally wrote the pamphlet for her children, and then decided to publish it after receiving many requests for copies. Her prosecution and then conviction on April 23, 1929 became a national cause célèbre, with many prominent Americans coming to her defense. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, on this day, overturned the conviction in a decision that expanded First Amendment protections for other sexuality related publications.

Mary Ware Dennett was also a leading advocate of birth control. In the 1920s and 1930s, working through the Voluntary Parenthood League, she was Margaret Sanger’s chief rival on the issue (see the video below).

The Court: “It may be assumed that any article dealing with the sex side of life and explaining the functions of the sex organs is capable in some circumstances of arousing lust. The sex impulses are present in every one, and without doubt cause much of the weal and woe of human kind. But it can hardly be said that, because of the risk of arousing sex impulses, there should be no instruction of the young in sex matters, and that the risk of imparting instruction outweighs the disadvantages of leaving them to grope about in mystery and morbid curiosity and of requiring them to secure such information, as they may be able to obtain, from ill-informed and often foul-minded companions, rather than from intelligent and high-minded sources.”

Learn more about Post Office censorship: http://academic.evergreen.edu/k/klalor09/Post%20Office%20Censorship%20home.htm

Learn more about Dennett: Constance Chen: “The Sex Side of Life: Mary Ware Dennett’s Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education (1996)

And more about the pivotal Dennett case: Laura Weinrib, The Taming of Free Speech (2016)

Watch a video on the Dennett-Sanger rivalry over birth control: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2I0TYgwjoc0

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