From 1915 through the 1930s, Mary Ware Dennett’s pioneering battles against U.S. government censorship helped pave the way for the freedom of speech Midge Maisel relies on and fights to expand.
Like other fans of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I’ll be binge-watching when the fourth season of the hit series finally drops on Friday, Feb. 18. There’s something deeply cathartic about watching the glamorous Midge Maisel battle sexism and censorship. Wielding words like poison stilettos, Maisel turns the narratives of everyday life into comedic shards that cut to the truth of self doubt, setback and triumph on the path to personal reinvention. We don’t need to be a 20-something, divorced mother of two in the late 1950s to relate to her experiences as a woman battling to be heard.
I can’t help but wonder if the fictional Midge Maisel was influenced by the real-life Mary Ware Dennett or what would happen if they met. It’s possible that at least some of Maisel’s pluck and fortitude was derived from learning about women like Dennett in newspapers and magazines. Dennett wasn’t a comedian, she was an activist. From 1915 through the 1930s, Dennett’s pioneering battles against the U.S. government’s censorship helped pave the way for the freedom of speech that Maisel both relies on and fights to expand.
Dennett was a chink in the armor of U.S. obscenity laws, a just-the-facts advocate for honesty in sex education. Unlike Maisel, who grew up in New York, Dennett was a transplant to Manhattan from Boston. That’s where their differences end, and the story of two fearless women pushing the boundaries of legal and cultural norms begins.
As young wives, Maisel and Dennett seemed to have it all—the man of their dreams, healthy children, up and coming lifestyles—everything they thought they desired. But each woman’s perfect world came crashing down—and for both, it was about sex. Maisel’s man left her for his secretary. For Dennett, difficulties in childbirth left her with a painful choice: risk death if she had another child, or abstain from sexual intercourse. Abstinence proved impossible for Dennett’s husband and in 1908, he scampered off to start a commune in New Hampshire.
Betrayed and humiliated, both women channeled their considerable creative energies into reinventing themselves. Maisel followed her penchant for wisecracks into a career as a standup comedian, initially doing gigs in back-alley clubs in Greenwich Village. Dennett joined the suffrage movement in Massachusetts, and was later recruited to the national headquarters in New York. Arriving in Manhattan in 1910, Dennett cut her hair and her corset, then she took a lover. Like Maisel, she found her tribe in the smoke-filled back rooms of the Village, but Dennett’s group called itself Heterodoxy, a secret sorority of feminist artists, writers and reformers.
Betrayed and humiliated, both women channeled their creative energies into reinventing themselves. Maisel followed her penchant for wisecracks into a career as a standup comedian. Dennett joined the suffrage movement.
“But wait. Back up,” Midge Maisel might say, pausing for effect and raising an eyebrow in suspicion. “Why would Mary Ware Dennett and her husband have to abstain from sex? Couldn’t they use condoms?”
The answer is no. In 1873, Anthony Comstock, the anti-smut crusader and head of New York’s Suppression of Vice, succeeded in making all forms of birth control illegal after Congress passed his anti-obscenity statutes. Later known as the Comstock laws, these statutes even prohibited information about the prevention of conception by equating it with pornography. With the stroke of a pen, conversations about how to prevent pregnancy became illegal even between doctors and patients. Anyone found guilty could be fined up to $5,000 and sentenced to prison. Comstock himself once boasted that he’d been responsible for more than 4,000 arrests and the suicides of 15 “deviants.”
Maisel and her friend, Lenny Bruce, may be unaware, but their arrests and battles over censorship are directly related to the laws that Dennett sought to change. By 1915, then 43-year-old Dennett realized that winning the vote for women was only one prong on the path to equality. She quit her job at suffrage headquarters and co-founded the National Birth Control League, the first organization of its kind in the U.S. Its mission was to change the Comstock laws and transform cultural views about sex.
Although the country was beginning to wrestle with its notions about women and morality, the prevailing attitude still held that procreation, or securing the future of the species, was a woman’s supreme duty. The idea that women might regard sex as a creative, pleasurable and emotionally fulfilling act, was beyond their comprehension.
So strong were these social, religious and legal chokeholds on women, that even in the late 1950s, when Maisel reunites with her ex in an evening of passion, or when she falls into the arms of the dreamy doctor, she’s breaking accepted norms.
With the stroke of a pen, conversations about how to prevent pregnancy became illegal even between doctors and patients. Comstock himself once boasted that he’d been responsible for more than 4,000 arrests and the suicides of 15 “deviants.”
Besides wanting to change public attitudes and the law, Dennett also wanted her teenage boys to learn the facts about sex rather than be tainted by Victorian myth and misconception. Scouring the libraries for suitable books to give them but finding none, she penned her own pamphlet called, The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People. If Maisel had seen the pamphlet, she might say, “Women will fix it and accessorize it!”
A former professor of art, Dennett illustrated it with anatomically correct drawings. Frontal and side-view diagrams of penises, vaginas and the entire reproductive system. Dennett shared her booklet with friends who shared it with friends and so on, until eventually, it found its way into the respectable Medical Review of Reviews, winning praise and endorsements. Struggling to earn money, she began selling the pamphlet to anyone who wrote to her with a request and a quarter.
About the same time, across the ocean in Switzerland, James Joyce began writing Ulysses, one of literature’s most groundbreaking novels. Its publication immediately became ensnared by censorship laws in Europe and the U.S. In an odd twist of fate, Dennett’s pamphlet and Joyce’s novel became inextricably linked—not unlike the interwoven careers of Midge Maisel and Lenny Bruce.
Fast forward to January 1929 at a federal courthouse in Brooklyn. Now a grandmother and retired from birth control work, Dennett was indicted and arrested for sending obscene material—her sex ed pamphlet—through the mail. The lead counsel of The American Civil Liberties Union, a close friend of Dennett’s, rose to her defense. Declaring her case to be on par with those of Copernicus and Darwin, he marshaled more than 30 experts in academia, religion and medicine to testify that contrary to being smut, Dennett’s book was scientific and educational.
Dennett shared her booklet with friends who shared it with friends and so on, until eventually, it found its way into the respectable Medical Review of Reviews, winning praise and endorsements. Struggling to earn money, she began selling the pamphlet to anyone who wrote to her with a request and a quarter.
The prosecuting attorney countered that “this woman” and her booklet “…opens the window … and beckons in all the neighbors’ children” to corrupt them. In overly dramatic tones that one reporter called a “caricature” of performance, the prosecutor read passages to the jury that were taken out of context. A Methodist pastor and professor of philosophy at Yale University who was present for the trial, called the prosecutor’s remarks “medieval fatheadism” and “hot air.”
Yet the prosecutor convinced the all-male jury that the booklet’s discussion of masturbation, its illustrations, its discussions of the possible delights of sexual union, would “lead our children not only into the gutter, but below the gutter and into the sewer.” And he attempted to strike a note of patriotic duty in finding Dennett guilty:
“If women practice birth control … where will our soldiers come from in our hour of need? God help America if we haven’t men to defend her in that hour.”
None of Dennett’s experts were allowed to testify and the jury took just 45 minutes to find her guilty of obscenity. Maisel would have noted, as did Dennett, that there weren’t any female faces among the jurors. “Her peers?” Maisel would have mocked. “You call this a jury of her peers?” raising another eyebrow. Women weren’t allowed to serve on federal juries until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1957.
It’s easy to imagine Dennett’s sense of utter defeat at the hands of what she called “obdurate” humans. She would have agreed with Maisel’s dad, Abe, when he laments aloud on the subway, “The greatest threat to humanity is ignorance.”
Dennett’s legal dream team immediately filed an appeal. By this time, public, if not political, attitudes had shifted. The nation was riveted by the trial and like Maisel, Dennett gained something of a cult following. Fundraisers were held, letter writing campaigns were launched, and petitions were sent to then President Hoover. When the press repeatedly described Dennett as a “silver-haired,” grandmotherly type, continually using an unflattering picture, Dennett did what Maisel would have done: She got proactive. Dennett started sending reporters photos that were more flattering along with a copy of her resume that touted an accomplished career.
During the months that followed her conviction and the appellate court’s ruling, a reporter for the New York Telegram uncovered the truth behind the trial. The entire thing had been a sham, a government sting operation as payback for Dennett’s work to change the laws. In an act that Maisel would have declared pure “Comstockery,” a postal inspector named C.E. Dunbar had written to Dennett under the fictitious name of Mrs. Carl A. Miles to request a copy of The Sex Side of Life. Dunbar had even ordered stationery printed with the fictitious woman’s name and address. Dennett, as she always did, mailed the requested copy, thereby setting in motion her indictment, arrest and trial.
Maisel may be famous for her brisket, but I laugh to think of the mincemeat she’d make of Mr. C.E. Dunbar.
Almost one year later, in March 1930, the appellate court reversed Dennett’s conviction, setting one of the most important legal precedents of the 20th century. While it wasn’t the victory Dennett had fought to achieve, nevertheless, it created a fracture in the laws that had held captive both reproductive rights and the legal definition of obscenity for nearly 60 years.
Three years later, Dennett’s attorney was back in court, battling censorship laws, this time on behalf of Random House and its right to publish Joyce’s Ulysses. Citing Dennett’s precedent-setting legal victory, the court ruled in favor of its publication along with other previously banned books in the U.S.
As for Dennett, when the Great Depression settled in, her fame receded into the shadows. At the time of her death in 1947, 23 editions published of The Sex Side of Life and it had been translated into 15 languages. Her family continued to sell it until 1964. I own a stack of yellowed copies of the pamphlet and am struck by its straightforward, common sense approach to sex education—still a rarity today. I can imagine an episode of the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel that begins with Maisel dropping a quarter into an envelope and mailing it to Dennett.
Receiving her requested copy, Maisel might respond as she quipped in one episode, “If you have underwear on, you’re overdressed.”