Who was Mary Ware Dennett, and why does Lynn Lederer, Ph.D., director of professional and community programs at Middlesex County College, call her “a radical sex educator”?
Late last month, while we were still technically celebrating Women’s History Month, Dr. Lederer defended the dissertation she wrote for a doctoral degree in the social and philosophical foundations of education at Rutgers University. Its title: “The Dynamic Side of Life: The Emergence of Mary Coffin Ware Dennett as a Radical Sex Educator.”
I interviewed Dr. Lederer about Dennett, and it convinced me that Dennett deserves more recognition for her contributions to the sex education field. Her beliefs were certainly radical for her time and worthy of the word today.
Mary Ware Dennett (April 4, 1872–July 25, 1947) was raised in Boston and lived most of her life in New York City. Her ancestors included numerous social reformers, and Dennett learned the importance of social equality from them. One of her relatives was Lucretia Coffin Mott, an American Quaker abolitionist, social reformer, and proponent of women’s suffrage.
As a young adult, Dennett became involved in the “arts and crafts movement.” The movement had an anti-modern sentiment, concerned with the economic inequalities that industrialization exaggerated. It advocated “a return to the land” and the simpler things of life. Dennett’s accomplishments included founding the design school at Drexel University in Philadelphia and becoming a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. According to Dr. Lederer, she was “principled and pragmatic and didn’t care whose feathers she ruffled,” as she became an advocate for sex education, birth control, women’s suffrage, and other causes.
Personal events, family history, and the social and political context of the early twentieth century fostered Dennett’s interest in birth control and sex education. Married to Hartley Dennett, an architect, she suffered “three horrible pregnancies, one of which resulted in the death of the baby.”
Her doctor ordered her not to have any more children, yet he prescribed no method of prevention other than abstinence. Eventually, Dennett divorced her husband, who was having a romantic relationship right under her nose. In the early twentieth century, seeking a divorce was itself somewhat of “a scandal” and required a courageous spirit. Dennett became a single mother, raising two young sons in New York, where she worked for the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
Questions about sex from her 14-year-old son, Carleton, away at a small New England boarding school, started Dennett down the sex education road. She did not shy away from the questions and began to seek age-appropriate materials for him and her younger, 10-year-old son, Devon. She found most of the materials unsatisfactory and lacking in candor: They did not mention or describe the sex act itself.
Since Dennett believed that “sex is the very greatest physical and emotional pleasure there is in the world,” she confidently undertook the challenge of answering her son’s questions using her own research and discussions with doctors.
The result of her dedication to “truth-telling” was a 16-page manual that she wrote in 1915, The Sex Side of Life, an Explanation for Young People. It covered many topics forthrightly, including the “physiological, scientific, moral, and emotional aspects of sexuality.” Dennett used anatomically accurate words for male and female body parts and included pictures with the parts clearly labeled. She described the actual sex act and encouraged her sons to understand that sex should be for pleasure as well as reproduction. This was radical indeed when placed beside views of the Victorian era, which influenced sexual behavior when Dennett was growing up.
Dennett told her sons that she believed sex was part of a “special relationship” and counseled “against sex without love.” (Critics today might complain that Dennett’s manual did not mention gay and lesbian relationships.) To her credit, she discussed masturbation, although she hinted that her sons should not “do it too much.”
Ironically, given her own personal experience using abstinence as the only form of birth control, there is no mention at all of methods, which must have existed, crude as they might have been. Venereal diseases get only a brief mention.
What makes this manual truly radical is not only the scope of its information for young people, but also its tone. There is hardly a hint of adult or parental control or repression about young people’s sexuality and no emphasis on fear or shame as ways to control behavior. Rather, Dennett emphasizes a humanist, civil libertarian approach that engenders respect for young people’s rights to all the information they need to make a personal decision about sexuality, whether good or bad.
Although some might think these next lines from the manual quaint—even naïve, in today’s sexually saturated culture—they convey its spirit and tone. Dennett wrote to her sons: “When boys and girls get into their ‘teens,’ a side of them begins to wake up which has been asleep, or only partly developed ever since they were born, that is the sex side of them. It is the most wonderful and interesting part of growing up. This waking up is partly of the mind, partly of the body, and partly of the feelings or emotions.”
But her sons, their friends, other parents, and the medical profession itself did not find Dennett’s information and counsel quaint. Her manual created quite a buzz and was copied and passed along from family to family, colleague to colleague, and clergy to clergy. After it was published in its entirety—and received a glowing introduction in the highly regarded The Medical Review of Reviews in 1918—thousands of copies were distributed and sold (at $.25 a copy) to institutions and individuals worldwide. This demand revealed the intense need at the time for honest, medically accurate information about sexuality for young people.
But when sex education is involved, controversy is often not far behind. In 1928, Dennett was arrested for distributing copies of The Sex Side of Life through the U.S. mail and charged with promoting “obscenity” under the repressive Comstock laws. Her arrest became a “cause célèbre.” (The New York Times covered her trial.)
Dennett fought the charges, saying, “Talking about sex is not obscene.” She argued against the prevailing wisdom that talking about sex with young people encourages them to engage in it—an argument some still make today when arguing against comprehensive sex education. Rather, she maintained that sex education “empowers” young people, and every person “must have access to all the knowledge that is available to them” to make their own decisions.
Lederer’s dissertation details that a jury of 12 white men heard the case “and Mrs. Dennett was quickly convicted and fined $300, with a possible jail sentence of one year.” Dennett refused to pay the fine, explaining: “If I have corrupted the youth of America, a year in jail is not enough for me, and I will not pay the fine!” On appeal, the Circuit Court of Appeals set aside the conviction, finding that The Sex Side of Life hardly measured up to the definition of obscenity in the repressive statute.
There is no record that Mary Ware Dennett ever became more involved in sex education after scoring a victory for her manual. However, she was involved in the birth control movement, where she and the far more famous Margaret Sanger chose different paths in their attempts to gain access for women to these lifesaving devices.
Sanger convinced legislators to introduce “The Doctors-Only Bill,” to permit women to obtain birth control devices only from a member of the medical profession. Dennett—believing that women should be free to get birth control devices from multiple sources and that there should not be “a medical monopoly of knowledge and information”— searched for backers of the more liberal, far-seeing legislation known as the “Clean Bill.” Of the two women, Dennett’s approach was far more radical than Sanger’s, although it was the latter’s political effort that prevailed.
I asked Dr. Lederer what Dennett might think of the progress we’ve made to date with sex education in the U.S.
“The issues Dennett fought for 100 years ago are still being fought today, a century later. She would be saddened that we still have not attained her goal that every person has the right to knowledge and information about sexuality,” she said.
For Dr. Lederer, Dennett’s “unequivocal conviction that all members of a truly democratic society have the right to know is still radical today because [it implies that] with knowledge, ordinary people have the ability and the responsibility to chart their own course in life without control from those at the top of the social hierarchy.”
“Dennett was a true humanist, trusting in the ability of ordinary people,” Dr. Lederer added.
Surely, radical Mary Ware Dennett deserves a prominent place in the pantheon of sex education heroines and in women’s history.