Dennett, Mary Ware, 1872-1947Variant names
Mary Coffin Ware was the second child of four born to George and Vonie Ware. At age 10, her father died of cancer. Her mother supported the family by organizing European tours for young women. While her mother was away, Mary and her siblings often lived with their Aunt Lucia Ames Mead, a prominent social reformer. Mary enrolled in the School of Art and Design in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1891 and graduated with first honors, then took a teaching position at the Drexel Institute of Art in Philadelphia in 1894.
Mary Coffin Ware married William Hartley Dennett, an architect, in 1900. They shared the ideal of the Arts and Crafts movement and shortly thereafter bought a farmhouse in Framingham. Together, they founded an architectural and interior design firm. In addition her work as an interior designer and guadamacile maker, Mary Dennett continued to lecture and write about the Arts and Crafts movement.
The Dennetts’ first child was born in December 1900, after a difficult labor that nearly killed Mary. After another difficult labor, their second child was born in 1903 and died 3 weeks later. A third child was born in 1905, again after a difficult labor. This time the doctor told the Dennetts that they should not have any more children, but did not give them any information on birth control.
In 1904, Mary's husband Hartley Dennett began work on a house for a married couple, Dr. Heman Lincoln Chase and Margaret Chase. Eventually, Hartley Dennett and Margaret Chase developed an extremely close relationship, culminating in Hartley Dennett moving out of his and Mary's house in 1909. Concerned about the effect Hartley was having on their children, Mary Dennett filed for divorce in 1912, at the time an unusual and scandalous action. The Dennetts' divorce proceedings were a popular topic in the local newspapers, to Mary Dennett's great discomfort.
Motivated by both a desire to escape the unpleasant realities of her life as well as Hartley Dennett's refusal to financially support his children, Mary Dennett returned to working outside the home, but not in her previous career as an artist and interior designer. In 1908, Dennett accepted the position of field secretary of the Massachusetts Women’s Suffrage Association, beginning a long career in public advocacy for women's rights.
Dennett worked for the cause of women's suffrage from 1910 to 1914, a period that marked the revival of the women's suffrage movement, which had stagnated during the previous decade. After several years of work for the National American Women's Suffrage Association, she became disillusioned with the organization and resigned from her position.
Dennett co-founded the Twilight Sleep Association 1913, which advocated the use of scopolamine and morphine to allow women to have painless childbirth. Statistics showed that twilight sleep reduced infant mortality and the risk of injury and infection, due to reduced use of forceps. She served as acting president until 1914, then as vice president.
When world war broke out in 1914, Dennett to join the Women's Peace Party, an anti-war movement. In 1916, she served as field secretary for the American Union against Militarism, organizing meetings in several large cities. Dennett's work to re-elect Woodrow Wilson (under the belief that he would not declare war) led to a respected job as executive secretary for the League for Progressive Democracy. She resigned after Wilson declared war in 1917. She next co-founded and was employed by the People's Council of America, a socialist peace movement inspired by the Bolsheviks.
In 1915, Dennett's name was again in the newspapers, against her wishes. Her ex-husband Hartley Dennett, his partner Margaret Chase, and her husband Dr. Chase extended a public invitation to Mary Dennett to, as one newspaper put it, "adopt the creed of harmonious love and form a quadrangle" with the three of them. Dennett feared the negative effect that her involuntary notoriety might have on the organizations she worked with and considered resigning from the Twilight Sleep Association.
In 1914, Dennett met Margaret Sanger, a birth control advocate. Dennett was intrigued, but did not feel financially secure enough to join the birth control movement at the time. In 1915, Dennett wrote a sex education pamphlet for her children, as the result of the lack of any existing educational material that met her standards, which included scientific correctness, sex-positivity, and discussion of the emotional side of sexual relationships. The arrest of William Sanger in 1915 for distributing Margaret Sanger's birth control pamphlet catalyzed the birth control movement in the United States, and this time Dennett decided to get involved.
Dennett co-founded The National Birth Control League in 1915 with Jesse Ashley and Clara Gruening Stillman. In 1918, she became the NBCL's executive secretary and started a campaign to make birth control information legal, giving lectures and lobbying state legislatures to change the laws. During this time, her pamphlet on sex education, "The Sex Side of Life," was published. Later, as the NBCL faltered, she resigned as executive secretary and founded a new organization, the Voluntary Parenthood League, which focused on repealing anti-birth control information laws at the federal level.
In 1929, Dennett was arrested for her work with sex education, women's rights, and birth control. Many people felt that her work was obscene and she should be imprisoned or fined. "Mary Dennett sounded defiant, proclaiming she would pay no fine, however small: 'If a few federal officials want to use their power to penalize me for my work for the young people of this country, they must bear the shame of a jail sentence. It is government which is disgraced, not I." Dennet was proud of her work in sexual education and wanted it to last.
In 1910, Dennett's success in Massachusetts led the National American Woman Suffrage Association to aggressively recruit her for the position of Corresponding Secretary, reporting to Dr. Anna Howard Shaw. At the time, the NAWSA was ineffective and riven by factional conflict, which many blamed on Dr. Shaw's leadership. Taking the job required Mary to move from Boston to New York City, a hardship for her since she couldn't afford to move her children with her. Dennett successfully resolved much of the internal conflict in NAWSA within a few months, while supporting Dr. Shaw. Many prominent NAWSA members credited Dennett with reuniting the NAWSA membership and turning the organization around. In 1910, Washington State granted women the right to vote, the first state to do so in 14 years.
Later, Dennett became disillusioned with NAWSA after an unsuccessful attempt to reorganize to be more effective and what she saw as wasteful decisions overly influenced by wealthy donors. She resigned her position at NAWSA in 1914.
After William Sanger's arrest for distributing birth control information inspired a resurgence in the American birth control movement, Dennett co-founded The National Birth Control League in 1915 with Jesse Ashley and Clara Gruening Stillman. Dennett decided to start by rallying public support to strike down laws restricting birth control information. Later, as the NBCL faltered, she resigned as executive secretary and founded a new organization, the Voluntary Parenthood League. She used methods like lobbying and lectures to promote the cause.
Beginning in 1919, Dennett focused on a "straight repeal" of the birth control provisions of the Comstock Act at the federal level, rather than state-by-state efforts. She lobbied Congress to simply remove the words "prevention of conception" from federal obscenity statutes. Dennett repeatedly lobbied individual senators in person for a year before she found one willing to sponsor the bill, Senator H. Heisler Ball, a former practicing physician. However, he never introduced the bill.
In 1921, Dennett changed her approach and decided to work directly with the postmaster general, whose responsibility it was to enforce the laws banning distribution of birth control information through the mails (although in practice this was not enforced). Postmaster General William Hayes seemed sympathetic, but resigned before taking any action. His replacement, Dr. Hubert Work, was adamantly opposed to birth control information, earlier stating that his opinions on birth control could be summarized as "sterilize all boys and girls who are unfit to become parents, and then let nature take its course unhindered."
Dennett returned to lobbying Congress in 1922, pointing out that private opinion of members of congress must be in favor of birth control since the average number of children of a member of congress was 2.7. She continued to have difficulty finding sponsors for the bill, but in 1923 finally succeeded, when Senator Albert B. Cummins introduced the straight repeal bill in the Senate. However, the bill made no further progress during that session, since Cummins was unable to succeed in getting the rest of the Senate to vote on it due to mass absenteeism when it came up for a vote.
In the next session of Congress, Representative William N. Vaile sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives. However, it was also stalled continually and never came to a vote. In addition, Margaret Sanger and her organization lobbied in favor of a version of the bill that would allow birth control information to doctors only, and lobbied against the "straight repeal" bill. In 1925, Dennett gave up on passing the "straight repeal" bill and retired from her position at the VPL.
Dennett achieved her goal in an entirely different manner in 1930, by winning an appeal of her conviction for distribution of birth control information under the Comstock Act.
|Place Name||Admin Code||Country|
|Arts and crafts movement|
|Arts and society|
|Mothers and sons|
|Sex instruction for children|
|World War, 1914-1918|
|Women and peace|
|Women's rights activists|