SOME WEEKS AGO, I came across a notice concerning the 1947 death of a woman named Mary Ware Dennett at a nursing home in Valatie.
As I have been reading about Mrs. Dennett this past year, I have learned of her historically-important contributions to birth control and sex education, issues still at the forefront of heated arguments across the country. But I also knew she advocated on these matters from her New England and New York City homes. So, how did she get to Valatie?
Mary Coffin Ware was born in Worchester, MA, in 1872.
She married Hartley Dennett, an architect, in 1900 and bore three children over the next five years. Her first son was born healthy; her second was born after a difficult labor and soon died; her third son was born in 1905. These pregnancies severely affected her health and she abandoned work as an artist and interior designer.
In 1907 Mary Ware Dennett had corrective surgery to repair birth-induced lacerations in her uterus. Advised against further pregnancy, and without the availability of contraception, she and her husband stopped having intercourse. Her husband soon started an affair with a close family friend and the Dennett marriage ended in short order.
In the aftermath of this betrayal, Mrs. Dennett started a new professional life as an organizer for women’s suffrage, birth control and sex education.
Speaking with The Columbia Paper recently, family archivist Sharon Spaulding, who is working on a biography based on newly discovered family letters, noted that Mrs. Dennett felt “obligated to work through existing structures to bring about change.”
Mrs. Dennett moved in 1910 to bohemian Greenwich Village, meeting regularly with other reform-minded women, and later to a small Murphy-bedded Manhattan apartment reflecting her modest temperament and marginal income. A skilled communicator, she served as correspondence secretary for the National American Women Suffrage Association until 1915 when she became president of the Twilight Sleep Association which she had co-founded a year earlier to advocate for anesthetizing pregnant women to alleviate childbirth pains.
In 1915, Mrs. Dennett wrote a groundbreaking essay, “The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People,” for her young sons, who had begun asking her about sex. Originally published in a medical journal in 1918, doctors were impressed with the essay’s clear and specific language free of misleading or harmful information. One doctor told her it was the first publication he felt comfortable sharing with patients who asked him what they should say to their children asking them about sex.
Flooded with requests for a copy of the essay, Mrs. Dennett published “The Sex Side of Life” as a 21-page, illustrated pamphlet, selling for 25 cents, that she distributed to school, youth, religious, and health care groups. Through 30 printings, her family continued to send the pamphlet out until 1964.
In 1915, too, Mrs. Dennett co-founded the National Birth Control League, the first American birth control organization.
In the mid-1920s, living on a meager income, Mrs. Dennett moved to Queens, where she initially lived alone while writing accounts of her birth control and anti-censorship struggles. In the late 1930s she started living with her third son Devon, his wife Marie, and their daughters Sally and Joanna.
In 1922, under the infamous Comstock Act, “The Sex Side of Life” was deemed “lewd, lascivious, and obscene.” Seven years later, Mrs. Dennett was indicted for using the U.S. mail to distribute her pamphlet. Represented by the civil libertarian attorney Morris Ernst, she was convicted, but refused to pay a fine. Her conviction was appealed and overturned in 1930.
Attorney Ernst and other lawyers soon used Mrs. Dennett’s case to counter Comstock Act obscenity bans on James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and works by other authors.
Describing her advocacy of educational and legislative reform, Mrs. Dennett wrote four books within a dozen years of activism concerning birth control and sex education, each praised for its comprehensiveness and practicality: “The Case for Birth Control” (1920); “Birth Control Laws: Shall We Keep Them, Change Them, or Abolish Them?” (1926); “Who’s Obscene?” (1930); “The Sex Education of Children: A Book for Parents” (1931).
In 1945, Mary Ware Dennett, suffering debilitating stroke-related symptoms, moved to Valatie, where her granddaughter Sally Dennett lived. She passed away on July 26, 1947, at the age of 75, at the now-named The Grand Rehabilitation and Nursing at Barnwell.
In 2020, Time magazine named her one of nine important women largely overlooked by history.
For further information about Mary Ware Dennett and other women to remember, visit Sharon Spaulding’s website at https://sharonspaulding.com/.