Today in Feminist History: Sex Education is not “Obscene” (April 29, 1929)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

April 29, 1929: Mary Ware Dennett was sentenced today for violating the Comstock Act by sending a sex education pamphlet through the mail.

The booklet, entitled “The Sex Side of Life,” was originally a manuscript she wrote in 1915 for her own sons, then aged 10 and 14, because what few materials on the subject she could find contained inaccurate information, and were clearly intended to induce shame and fear about human sexuality.

Her essay was so well written that her friends with adolescent children asked to borrow it, and eventually it was reprinted in the prestigious “Medical Review of Reviews” in February, 1918. She then turned it into a 24-page pamphlet, and began distributing it more widely, with organizations such as the Y.M.C.A. purchasing numerous copies. It has been estimated that 35,000 booklets have been distributed. 

On September 2, 1922, the Post Office Department informed her that her literature was “obscene,” as defined by the Comstock Act, and therefore un-mailable—though they refused to say precisely what they found offensive. She persisted in sending out her booklets, noting over the years that substantial numbers of empty envelopes wound up being delivered. Whether this reflected a policy of harassment by the Post Office, or a need for sex education materials by postal employees is uncertain.

Last year she was indicted under the Comstock Act, convicted six days ago, and today fined $ 300. She faced a maximum sentence of five years in jail and a fine of $ 5,000. Like Susan B. Anthony, who was convicted of “illegally” voting in the 1872 election due to being a woman, Dennett has pledged not to pay a penny of this unjust fine, and is willing to serve the 300-day alternative sentence if necessary: “I shall pay no fines, no matter how small, nor will I let anyone else pay them for me. If I go to jail for the work I have done in behalf of the young people of the country, the disgrace will be on the government.”

Dennett has been assisted in her battle by Morris L. Ernst, who has been serving as her attorney, and will continue to represent her without charge while carrying on her appeal. A Mary Ware Dennett Defense Committee, composed of attorneys, physicians, educators, and members of the clergy has now been formed, and will help her take her appeal as high as needed.

Among the committee’s first actions will be to send a copy of the pamphlet to President Hoover to enlist his support, despite a warning from Assistant United States Attorney J.F. Wilkinson, who prosecuted this case, that they would be in violation of the same statute under which Dennett had just been convicted.

Before sentence was passed, Dennett had a chance to address the judge, and said:

“Thousands of intelligent, decent citizens have endorsed my pamphlet during the eleven years it has been distributed. Of the many editorials concerning it that have come to me, not one contains adverse criticism. Surely the press and these thousands of citizens cannot all be wrong. The pamphlet is being sold now in every state of the Union.”

After court, she had more to say: 

“If boys can’t learn about sex from books, written by people of decent thoughts and idealism, they will learn about it from other sources. They shouldn’t have to go to the gutter for what they have a right to know.

“I consider my trial was unjust because we were not permitted to use as witnesses some of the leading social workers and teachers who have been using my volume for years.

“I believe that the men who served on the jury – one of them slept during the entire trial – were themselves victims of unintelligent sex training. I should be willing to venture that most of them had irreparable harm done to their own minds in childhood by nasty concepts of sex – and any reminder of it is unwholesome to them.

“It is because of this lack of sex education, this lack of scientific information on the subject, that I wrote the pamphlet for my own children. I do not blame the jurymen, but I do protest against the idiocy of laws which make truth criminal. I am against a system of censorship which puts the opinion of one prejudiced person or group of persons against that of the educated and advanced people of this country.

“If it is criminal to tell the truth, then I am willing and anxious to go to jail for my principles.”

The Executive Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union, which organized her defense committee, issued a statement of support today:

“We condemn the prosecution of Mrs. Dennett as evidence of an intolerant and unenlightened attitude toward the serious discussion of the fact of sex. Obscenity should not be defined in the law or in fact as governing the instruction of youth in matters of vital concern to wholesome living.”

Her opponents are encouraged by the conviction, and John S. Sumner, president of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, founded by Anthony Comstock in 1873, said today that if he received reports of her booklet being sold by a bookseller, he would take action. 

Like the battle for birth control – in which Dennett is also actively involved – the fight for access to accurate and objective information about human sexuality will go on in many different forums, from the courts to the legislatures to the press. Fortunately, both of these related causes have many courageous individuals prepared to do whatever is necessary to repeal Nineteenth Century laws that continue to do great harm in these modern times.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.