Review

An unsung hero of the early women's movement

In Brief: 

Mrs. Dennett believed "birth control to be a humanist movement, a parenthood question, to include both men and women. Since it took two to create a child, she reasoned, the responsibility should be consciously shared by both. Absolutely against any kind of separatist thinking whatsoever, Dennett believed in partnership."

The Sex Side of Life: Mary Ware Dennett's Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education
By Constance M. Chen 
The New Press 
New York

Good biographies tell the story not only of a subject's life, but also of their times, covering the major social and moral issues of a particular era. The best illuminate paradigm-shifting currents of thought while presenting a compelling personal story.

In The Sex Side of Life: Mary Ware Dennett's Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education, Constance M. Chen has created such a work. Tightly focused on the life of Mary Ware Dennett, a turn-of-the-century American social activist, her biography shines a light on the vast moral changes at the root of the women's movement, our era's openness about sexuality, and, even, the idea that people should launch an individual search for spiritual fulfillment.

Although not well known today, Mrs. Dennett was a major figure in the women's movement in the decades before, during and after World War I. She played key roles in the fight for women's suffrage, in the pre-World War I peace movement, and in the postwar battle to lift the ban on the distribution of information about contraception and birth control. Even in her times, Mrs. Dennett was not well acknowledged: humble by nature, she often worked behind the scenes in the movements she championed, letting others take the glory.

Yet, through meticulous research, Ms. Chen shows that Mrs. Dennett's contributions to the women's movement were huge - and that her points of view about its shape and direction are those that have born the most fruit in the long run. For example, Mrs. Dennett early on promoted the idea that men had as much of a stake in women's advancement as women themselves, suggesting that true equality between women and men would make marriage and family life better for both.

Mary Ware Dennett took on a wide ranges of roles and causes during her life. Born in 1872 in Worcester, Massachusetts, she was a daughter, a student, an artisan, a wife, a mother, a suffragist, a peace activist and, finally, a pioneering advocate of birth control and sex education.

By the time she died in 1947, she had waged three major battles, according to Ms. Chen. The first battle, she writes, was to hold together her family in the face of a free-spirited husband who abandoned her and their two children for another woman. The second was as an activist to obtain the vote for women and to make birth control legally available to Americans. And the third battle was over her ground-breaking sex education pamphlet, The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People. For distributing it through the mail, she was charged with violating national obscenity laws - and her widely publicized trial was partly responsible for a major shift in the practice of sex education in the United States.

What makes Ms. Chen's account of these three battles especially interesting is her talent for showing how each episode stems in part from a process of moral change that was vastly affecting society. Throughout the book, Ms. Chen explores how sudden shifts in the post-Victorian moral climate opened the door to a whole range of new ideas about love, marriage, sexuality - and even spirituality.

"Around the turn of the century, religion was being challenged as the arbiter of moral values and a new individualism was leading to a decline in social responsibility and the rise of a 'rights'-oriented culture," Ms. Chen writes, referring to Mrs. Dennett's battle for her husband's love. "Reacting against the repression of the old world, a major paradigm shift occurred as pleasure replaced duty and personality replaced character as the defining factors of the new belief system. The fall of traditional religion led to the rise of do-it-yourself philosophies whose only criteria were to please the self. This resulted in a general questioning and weakening of the institution of marriage, from which alternative life-styles took root. In the midst of this, Mary's husband became convinced through the rhetoric of another woman that 'free love' was the path to a higher morality."

Likewise, Ms. Chen illuminates the Victorian attitudes of close-mindedness that led to the repression of information about birth control and sexuality - and the blossoming of new ideas that ultimately prevailed. The growing movement for women's rights led many to recognize that laws which classified information about birth control as obscene were devastating to women's health - as Mary Ware Dennett discovered in her own life when she almost died after giving birth to her second child. Mrs. Dennett, writes Ms. Chen, believed "birth control to be a humanist movement, a parenthood question, to include both men and women. Since it took two to create a child, she reasoned, the responsibility should be consciously shared by bothÖ. Absolutely against any kind of separatist thinking whatsoever, Dennett believed in partnership."

And in describing Mrs. Dennett's 1929 trial for distributing obscene material - the simple and straightforward Sex Side of Life pamphlet, which actually upholds a moral and spiritual view of sex - Ms. Chen likewise explores thoroughly the degree to which issues affecting an entire generation and its progeny were brought to light.

Although Mary Ware Dennett was not a Bahá'í, she did attend lectures on the Bahá'í Faith at Green Acre, a prestigious institute in Eliot, Maine, where members of Boston's turn-of-the-century intellectual elite explored new ideas about religion and spirituality. (Green Acre is today a Bahá'í school.) Yet Mrs. Dennett may well have been influenced by the Faith's progressive ideals, hints Ms. Chen, who is herself a Bahá'í. Ms. Chen writes that "the social principles of the Bahá'í Faith would bear an uncanny resemblance to Mary's own belief structure for the rest of her life..."

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