Dennett, Mary Ware, 1872-1947

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Mary Coffin Ware Dennett (April 4, 1872 – July 25, 1947) was an American women's rights activist, pacifist, homeopathic advocate, and pioneer in the areas of birth control, sex education, and women's suffrage. She co-founded the National Birth Control League in 1915 together with Jessie Ashley and Clara Gruening Stillman. She founded the Voluntary Parenthood League, served in the National American Women's Suffrage Association, co-founded the Twilight Sleep Association, and wrote a famous pamphlet on sex education and birth control.

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.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Papers of Helen Brewster Owens, 1867-1948 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst. Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst records of censorship cases, 1927-1948. Cornell University Library
referencedIn McCulloch, Catharine Waugh, 1862-1945. Papers in the Mary Earhart Dillon collection, 1869-1945 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Margaret Sanger Research Bureau. Margaret Sanger Research Bureau Records 1873-1973 (bulk 1917-1969) Smith College, Neilson Library
creatorOf Dennett, Mary Ware, 1872-1947. Papers: Series V, 1913-1945 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Foley, Margaret, 1875-1957. Papers, 1847-1968 (inclusive), 1909-1929 (bulk). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Dennett, Mary Ware, 1872-1947. Additional papers of Mary Ware Dennett, 1892-1945 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Miscellaneous Subjects Collection MS 392., 1856-2000 Sophia Smith Collection
creatorOf Dennett, Mary Ware, 1872-1947. Papers, 1874-1945 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Dennett, Mary Ware, 1872-1947. Papers: Series II, 1894-1948 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Papers, 1867, 1895, 1902-1948 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Laidlaw, H. B. (Harriet Burton), b. 1874. Papers: Series V-VII, 1906-1947 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Sophia Smith Collection. Miscellaneous subjects collection, 1856-1980 (ongoing). Smith College, Neilson Library
referencedIn McCulloch, Catharine Waugh, 1862-1945. Papers in the Mary Earhart Dillon Collection, 1869-1945 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Porritt, Annie G. (Annie Gertrude), 1861-1932. Papers, 1906-1976. Smith College, Neilson Library
creatorOf Additional papers of Mary Ware Dennett, 1892-1945 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Stewart, Ella Jane Seass, 1871-. Series XII of the Mary Earhart Dillon Collection, 1895-1939 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Margaret Sanger Research Bureau Records MS 320., 1873-1973, 1917-1969 Sophia Smith Collection
referencedIn Park, Alice. Alice Park papers, 1920-1936. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Sara Teasdale Collection, 1888-1934 University of Virginia. Library. Special Collections Dept.
creatorOf Dennett, Mary Ware, 1872-1947. Papers: Series III, 1909-1942 (inclusive) [microform]. Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Laidlaw, Harriet Burton, 1873-1949. Papers, 1851-1958 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn O'Reilly, Leonora, 1870-1927. Papers, 1886-1927 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Park, Maud Wood, 1871-1955. Papers in the Woman's Rights Collection, 1870-1960 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Stantial, Edna Lamprey. Papers, 1836-1958 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Frank, Adelaide Schulkind. Papers, 1925-1972 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Papers of Grace A. Johnson in the Woman's Rights Collection, 1840-1952: Subseries A-E, 1840-1952 (inclusive) Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Dennett, Mary Ware, 1872-1947. Papers, 1874-1948 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Dennett, Mary Ware, 1872-1947. Papers: Series I, 1874-1944 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf STOPES PAPERS. Vol. CXXXIX (ff. 298). Mrs Mary Ware Dennett; 1919-1940.Mrs Mary Ware Dennett, Director, Voluntary Parenthood League, New York: Correspondence with Marie Stopes of Mrs Mary Ware Dennett: 1919-1940: Partly signed, partly copies, partly ..., 1919-1940 British Library
creatorOf Vol. CXLI. [1914?]-1931.includes:ff. 1, 3, 18 Mary Jennings, wife of H Jennings, of Washington, DC: Letters to Marie Stopes from Mary Jennings: 1914?-1918.ff. 7, 112 Lilian Russ, afterwards De H-: Letters to Marie Stopes from Lilian Russ: 1914, ..., 1914-1931 British Library
creatorOf United World Federalists (U.S.). New York State Branch. United World Federalists records, 1942-1950, bulk (1948-1949) New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf National Birth Control League. Form letter, 1918 April 2, New York, N.Y., [to] Sen. Adam P. Brown. University of Rochester Medical Center
referencedIn Papers of Anna Howard Shaw in the Mary Earhart Dillon Collection, 1863-1961 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Stewart, Ella Jane Seass, 1871-1945. Papers in the Mary Earhart Dillon Collection, 1895-1939 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Dennett, Mary Ware, 1872-1947. Papers: Series IV, 1910-1944 (inclusive) [microform]. Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Foley, Margaret, 1875-1957. Papers, 1847-1968 (bulk: 1909-1929) Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Villard, Oswald Garrison, 1872-1949. Papers, 1872-1949 Houghton Library
referencedIn United World Federalists records, 1942-1950, 1948-1949 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
referencedIn Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts records, 1859-2002 (ongoing) (bulk 1916-1960). Smith College, Neilson Library
referencedIn Johnson, Grace A. (Grace Allen), 1871-1952. Papers in the Woman's Rights Collection, 1840-1952 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Shaw, Anna Howard, 1847-1919. Papers in the Mary Earhart Dillon Collection, 1863-1961 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Dennett, Mary Ware, 1872-1947. Correspondence with Carl Zigrosser, 1918-1931. University of Pennsylvania Library
referencedIn Annie Gertrude Webb Porritt Papers 123., 1898-1976 Sophia Smith Collection
referencedIn Papers of Katharine Wolcott Toll, (inclusive), (bulk), 1809-2004, 1890-1985 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Park, Maud Wood, 1871-1955. Papers in the Woman's Rights Collection, 1870-1960 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Bryant, Louise Stevens, 1885-1956. Mary Ware Dennett Case Collection, 1919-1930 (bulk 1927-1930) New York Academy of Medicine
referencedIn Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts Records MS 359., 1859-2002, 1916-1960 Sophia Smith Collection
referencedIn Papers, 1925-1972 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
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associatedWith Schneiderman, Rose, 1882-1972. person
associatedWith Schulkind, Adelaide M. person
associatedWith Schwimmer, Rosika, 1877-1948. person
associatedWith Sergio, Lisa, 1905- person
associatedWith Shaw, Anna Howard, 1847-1919 person
associatedWith Shelly, Rebecca person
associatedWith Shelly, Rebecca. person
associatedWith Sinclair, Upton, 1878-1968. person
associatedWith Smedley, Agnes, 1892-1950. person
associatedWith Smith, Jane Norman, 1874-1953. person
associatedWith Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress. corporateBody
associatedWith Society of Arts and Crafts (Boston, Mass.) corporateBody
associatedWith Stantial, Edna Lamprey. person
associatedWith Stewart, Ella Jane (Seass), 1871- person
associatedWith Stillman, Clara Gruening person
associatedWith Stone, Hannah M. (Hannah Mayer), 1894-1941. person
associatedWith Stone, Harlan Fiske, 1872-1946. person
associatedWith Stopes, Marie Charlotte Carmichael, 1880-1958 person
associatedWith Stowe, Lyman Beecher, 1880-1963. person
associatedWith Street Manual Training School corporateBody
associatedWith Suttner, Bertha von, 1843-1914. person
associatedWith Swing, Raymond Gram, 1887-1968. person
associatedWith Taft, William H. (William Howard), 1857-1930. person
associatedWith Tarbell, Ida M. (Ida Minerva), 1857-1944. person
associatedWith The Birth Control Review corporateBody
associatedWith The Freewoman corporateBody
associatedWith Thomas, M. Carey (Martha Carey), 1857-1935. person
associatedWith Thomas, Norman, 1884-1968. person
associatedWith Tresca, Carlo, 1879-1943. person
associatedWith Twilight Sleep Association. corporateBody
associatedWith United World Federalists (U.S.). New York State Branch. corporateBody
associatedWith Upton, Harriet Taylor, 1853-1945 person
associatedWith Van Doren, Dorothy, 1896-1993. person
associatedWith Villard, Fanny Garrison, 1844-1928. person
associatedWith Villard, Oswald Garrison, 1872-1949. person
associatedWith Voluntary Parenthood League corporateBody
associatedWith Voluntary Parenthood League, New York. corporateBody
associatedWith Voluntary Parenthood League (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Voluntary Parenthood League (N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Voorhis, Jerry, 1901-1984. person
associatedWith Wald, Lillian D., 1867-1940. person
associatedWith Warner, Charles Dudley, 1829-1900. person
associatedWith Washington, Booker T., 1856-1915. person
associatedWith West, Rebecca, Dame, 1892- person
associatedWith Whitehouse, Vira Boarman, 1875-1957. person
associatedWith White, Sue Shelton, 1887-1943. person
associatedWith Whittier, John Greenleaf, 1807-1892. person
associatedWith Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924. person
associatedWith Winsor, Mary person
associatedWith Woman's Committee for Political Action. corporateBody
associatedWith Woman's Municipal League of the City of New York. corporateBody
associatedWith Woman's Peace Party. corporateBody
associatedWith Women's Peace Union. corporateBody
associatedWith Young, Art, 1866-1943. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Columbia County NY US
Boston MA US
Framingham MA US
Subject
Birth control--law and legislation
Young adults--Sexual behavior
Mothers and sons
Sex customs
Leather work
Censorship
Disarmament
Contraception
Sex educators
Lesbians
Arts and society
Single tax
Obscenity (law)
African Americans--Education
Women--Societies and clubs
Handicraft
Women--Suffrage
Arts and crafts movement
Trials (Obscenity)
Masturbation
International trade
Social reformers
Sex instruction for children
Peace--Societies, etc
Proportional representation
Homeopathic physicians
Civil rights
Architects' spouses
Sex education
Sex instruction
World War, 1914-1918--Protest movements
Labor (obstetrics)
Feminists
Women and peace--Societies, etc
Childbirth
Divorce suits
Lobbyists
Occupation
Social Activist
Sex educators
Suffragists
Pacifists
Women's rights activists
Authors
Art teachers
Activity

Person

Birth 1872-04-04

Death 1947-07-25

Female

Americans

English

Information

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Ark ID: w69q3s66

SNAC ID: 85578960