"The Sex Side of Life" in the News: Mary Ware Dennett's Obscenity Case, 1929-1930

By Flamiano, Dolores | Journalism History, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

"The Sex Side of Life" in the News: Mary Ware Dennett's Obscenity Case, 1929-1930


Flamiano, Dolores, Journalism History


I for one Think the country would be better run, If Mary Ware Dennett Explained things to the Senate.

Ogden Nash

"Hurrah!" rose a cry from Spokane to New York.

"We don't have to believe any more in the stork."

Holger Lundbergh1

Mary Ware Dennett national fame in 1929 when she was convicted under federal obscenity laws for mailing a pamphlet called "The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People." During the year between her conviction and its successful appeal, Dennett's obscenity case garnered national press coverage. Dozens of newspapers and magazines around the country covered the case and virtually all of them criticized Dennett's conviction and rallied behind her efforts to legalize sex education literature. A New York artist, birth control activist, freelance journalist, and divorced mother of two sons, Dennett achieved widespread popularity as the "silverhaired grandmother" who wrote a booklet reviled by some as smut and praised by others as a classic work of sex education literature.2 Scholars have recently rescued Dennett's case from the footnotes of censorship history, arguing that it helped to shape modern obscenity law by removing educational material from the category of obscenity.3

Journalism was a crucial element in Dennett's case, from the origins of the law invoked against her to the show of public support that greeted her trial, conviction, and appeal. Dennett was convicted under the Federal AntiObscenity Act of 1873 (popularly known as the Comstock Act), a sweeping law that attacked a wide range of content and material.4 The emergence of the Comstock Act was linked in part to shifting journalistic practices, especially the rise of cheap illustrated newspapers, magazines, and books in the 1870s. These changes inspired widespread fear of "the corruption of children by libidinous and pervasive popular culture."5 Scholars have described in some detail how the Comstock Act was used to suppress birth control and abortion, but few have explored the law's concern with the problem of "evil reading" by children.6 According to sociologist Nicola Beisel, in the eyes of Anthony Comstock, author of the Com.stock Law and its main enforcer until his death in 1915, "evil reading encompassed nearly all light fiction and popular journalism."' In his Traps for the Young, Comstock lamented the state of the press, especially its attention to crime:

If a man goes about removing swill and slops he is called a scavenger... What name shall be applied to the newspaper that gathers up the letters of the libertine, the secret doings of the rake, the minute descriptions of revolting crimes, the utterances of lips lost to all shame, the oozing of corruption from the debauched, and the weaving that to a highly sensational story, decks it with flying colors and peddles it out each day for the sake of money!S

According to Comstock, reading about the details of crime in the newspapers was sufficient to corrupt a young mind:

The youth who reads the loathsome details. . . might almost as well pass his time in the society of criminals. He could scarcely learn more of vice if he associated with thieves, murderers, liberties, and harlots. The presence of the criminal would inspire a fear, and their coarse loud talk ungarnished by an editor's pen would disgust and in part counteract the force of an evil example. The story in the paper puts them in precisely the same companionship, without the power by its presence to create the checks of fear and disgust.9

The decline of Comstockery by 1930 was also intimately linked to changes in journalism, especially greater public acceptance of sex in popular culture and a growing belief in the value of public opinion.'a In her 1930 book about the "The Sex Side of Life" case, Dennett commented on the role of the press in reflecting and arousing public opinion. She wrote that out of "the large mass of newspaper clippings which have come from all over the county," all were opposed to the censorship of her pamphlet.

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