Dirty Works
Obscenity on Trial in America’s First Sexual Revolution
Brett Gary




Mary Ware Dennett Versus Postal Power

IN 1915 FEMINIST ACTIVIST Mary Ware Dennett set out to give her two sons, ages 10 and 14, some straightforward guidance about sex. She read more than sixty publications about adolescent sexual development. Almost all evaded what she called the emotional and spiritual side of sex, and they were euphemistic at best about the physiology of puberty, arousal, and intercourse. After consulting physicians and medical manuals to find the most current, scientifically accurate information, she wrote her own pamphlet, eventually published as The Sex Side of Life (1918). Her experience as a women’s suffrage activist and birth control pamphleteer, combined with her idealism about the power of knowledge and her belief in direct talk about sexuality, resulted in a short work that stood out for its clarity and frankness. It quickly gained a large audience and eventually drew opponents.

Dennett addressed the taboo subject of masturbation, vividly described the physical pleasures of intercourse, and endorsed the role that birth control could play in enhancing married couples’ sex lives. In so doing, she shattered the usual silences about sexual gratification in sex education materials. She refused to bludgeon her young readers with the standard warnings about sex as animalistic, base, and surrounded by moral shamefulness. She thus left herself open to charges of violating the 1873 Comstock obscenity laws. When federal officials indicted her in January 1929, Dennett became something of a cause célèbre. Her plight helped focus the ACLU’s attention on sexual censorship issues, and it gave Morris Ernst and his law firm a high-profile platform to launch their offensive against federal obscenity statutes. The Dennett case also exposed the deep cultural agitation over the difficulties of containing sex in a period marked by dramatic changes in acknowledging the centrality of sexuality in people’s lives. Rapid urbanization and the commercialization of leisure, along with burgeoning entertainment industries that were marketing sex to consumers young and old, alarmed those who advocated for more traditional social and religious strictures around sexuality.

Dennett’s critics warned that her work threatened standards of personal virtue, undermined self-discipline, eroded the principles of chastity, promoted out-of-wedlock sex, and would even result in “race suicide” and national military weakness. Extravagant claims suffused the oral arguments and documents proffered by the prosecution and its experts. The overall tone is merely hinted at in the statement by the prosecutor, U.S. Attorney James A. Wilkinson: “In this pamphlet there is not one word about chastity; not one word about self control; nothing about that which distinguishes sinful lust from lawful passion. There is nothing that attracts the child’s attention to other things outside sex enjoyment.”1 For Wilkinson, these absences portended cultural doom, and he warned that he would use all his powers for God, country, and his own four daughters to keep Dennett’s writings out of the hands of young people.

Dennett’s supporters guffawed at Wilkinson and the idea that the pamphlet was obscene. There was nothing prurient or indecent about it. They asserted that Dennett’s language was clinical in its accuracy and honest in its treatment of her subject and that those features explained the pamphlet’s durable popularity among parents, sex educators, and youth ministry leaders in such respectable institutions as the YMCA and the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Dennett’s own respectability was established by the fact that she was regularly described by supporters and the press as an earnest gray-haired grandmother, intent on keeping young people from getting their information about sex from the gutter. She was, they averred, wrongly under attack by forces of anti-intellectualism and puritanical Comstockery. Their preoccupations with Dennett could best be explained by their “primitive sex fears” and desire to keep young people “in the terrible darkness,” as The Nation’s Dudley Nichols wrote. Dennett’s prosecutors and critics were “medieval” in their outlook, “moralists” who wanted to build high fences around the truth. The gulf “between Mrs. Dennett and her persecutors is,” Nichols wrote, “simply the eternal gulf between those who love and those who fear.”2

What was it about The Sex Side of Life that pulled Dennett before a federal district court judge in Brooklyn in January 1929 with possible imprisonment in her future? Why did Ernst conceive of Dennett’s pamphlet as a perfect test case to challenge the federal obscenity laws, months before either had an inkling she would actually be indicted? Why did her trial galvanize the ACLU and its growing membership to pay attention to sexual censorship issues? And what was it about the threat of censorship and the ongoing legal power of Comstockery that found the local and national journalists who covered the case portraying Dennett as a matronly figure rather than the leading feminist activist she was?


1. Wilkinson’s closing statement (stenographic transcript), United States v. Dennett, January 28, 1929, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC), Morris L. Ernst (MLE) Papers, Box 287, Folder 287.4. Excerpted in Mary Ware Dennett, Who’s Obscene (New York: Vanguard Press, 1930), 61.

2. Dudley Nichols, “Sex and the Law,” The Nation (May 8, 1929), 553.