For birth control advocate Mary Ware Dennett, the personal was political. After a difficult labor and delivery with her third child, a physician told Mary Ware Dennett she should not have any more children, but he told her nothing about how to prevent pregnancy. Dennett’s husband began an affair with a client of his architectural firm, destroying their marriage, and Dennett devoted her work to ensuring that other couples could receive information about birth control. A 1930 federal court case against her, United States v. Dennett, opened the door to widespread distribution of birth control information in the US.
Joining me in this episode is Dr. Lauren MacIvor Thompson, Assistant Professor of History at Kennesaw State University and faculty research fellow at the Georgia State University College of Law’s Center for Law, Health & Society. She is writing a book called Battle for Birth Control: Mary Dennett, Margaret Sanger, and the Rivalry That Shaped a Movement, that will be published by Rutgers University Press.
Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The episode image is a photo of Mary Ware Dennett from the New York Journal-American Collection, Harry Ransom Center, University Of Texas.
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Kelly Therese Pollock 0:00
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen to.
Today, on the second episode of our short series on reproductive justice in American history, we're discussing women's rights activist and birth control advocate, Mary Ware Dennett. Mary Coffin Ware was born in Worchester, Massachusetts, on April 4 1872, the second of four children. George Ware, Mary's father, was a hide and wool merchant, who was often traveling and working long hours. He died from cancer when Mary was 10. At that point, Mary's mother Livonia moved with the children to Boston to be closer to her family. As a woman, it was difficult for her to find employment. The employment she did find was to act as a chaperone to young women traveling to Europe. But that took her away from Mary and her siblings. While Livonia was away, they stayed with Mary's aunt, Lucia Eames, meet an outspoken pacifist and suffragist. In 1891, Mary enrolled in the School of Art and Design in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, graduating with first honors, and then taking a teaching position at the Drexel Institute of Art in Philadelphia in 1894. On January 20th 1900, she married architect William Hartley Dennett. Together, they founded an architectural and interior design firm. The couple had three children, Carlton, who was born in 1900, Appleton born in 1903, but who sadly died after only three weeks, and Devon, born in 1905. Dennett stopped working professionally for a time to recover from a difficult childbirth. At that point, she was told by a doctor that it could be fatal to her if she were to ever get pregnant again. After Hartley began an affair with a client and moved out of the house, Mary sued him for divorce, a scandalous action at the time. She received custody of the children in 1913. She began to work for suffrage organizations, first as field secretary of the Massachusetts Women's Suffrage Association, and then as corresponding secretary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, NASA, for which she moved to New York City. After disagreements about the future of the organization, Dennett resigned in 1915. A pacifist like her aunt, Dennett was the field secretary of the American Union against militarism, and a board member of the Woman's Peace Party. After the United States entered World War I, she was an organizer for a radical anti war group, the People's Council. When Dennett's older son became a teenager and started asking about sex, Dennett looked around for educational materials to give him. Finding nothing adequate, she wrote her own pamphlet for her sons in 1915 called The Sex Side of Life, which frankly describes sex organs, the reproductive process, and even things like masturbation and venereal diseases. After her own sons responded positively to the pamphlet, Dennett began to share it with friends who had children, and word spread about the work. In 1918, the Medical Review of Reviews published the pamphlet as an article in their February 1918 issue. Following that, Dennett published the standalone pamphlet and sold 35,000 copies in sending her pamphlets through the Postal Service. Dennett ran up against the Comstock Laws, which prohibited obscene, lewd or lascivious materials from being mailed under threat of prison, or a hefty fine. You'll hear more about these laws in my conversation with today's guest.
In 1922, the new Postmaster General Hubert Work doubled down on the Comstock clause, and asserted that The Sex Side of Life was indecent. Work never responded to Dennett's request that he identify which parts of the pamphlet were indecent. In January 1929, Dennett was indicted with James E. Wilkinson, an Assistant US Attorney, arguing that Dennett would quote "lead our children not only into the gutter, but below the gutter and into the sewer" unquote. After just 45 minutes, the all male jury convicted Dennett. Dennett's attorney Morris Ernst appealed the conviction and in march 1930, judges Thomas Swan, Harry Chase and Augustus Hand of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City, reverse the decision. Their reversal would become precedent in many cases to come. In the midst of all of this Dennett founded the National Birth Control League in March 1915. With Jesse Ashley and Clara Gruening Stillman, the focus of the National Birth Control League was to change laws at both the federal and state level that deemed information about birth control to be obscene. In 1919, Dennett reorganized the National Birth Control League into the Voluntary Parent League, an organization with one objective: to remove the words "preventing conception" from the Federal Comstock Act, so that information about birth control could be sent through the mail. Dennett served as both director of the Voluntary Parent League and as the editor of the Birth Control Herald. Birth control advocate, Margaret Sanger oppose this plan. She instead wanted to amend the law so that only physicians could disseminate information about birth control. Neither approach succeeded in changing the laws. And it would take court action to begin to allow birth control literature and devices to circulate. Marry Ware Dennett died on July 25th 1947. Joining me now, to help us understand more about Mary Ware Dennett is Dr. Lauren McIvor Thompson, Assistant Professor of History at Kennesaw State University and faculty research fellow at the Georgia State University College of Law's Center for Law, Health and Society. She is writing a book called "Battle for Birth Control: Mary Dennett, Margaret Sanger, and the rivalry that shaped a movement" that will be published by Rutgers University Press. Hi, Lauren. Thanks so much for joining me today.
Lauren McIvor Thompson 8:47
Thank you, Kelly. I'm excited to be here.
Kelly Therese Pollock 8:50
Yeah, I am thrilled to learn about someone in the history of reproductive rights that I didn't know anything about. So we'll talk some about that. So I wanted to start by asking you how you first got interested in Mary Ware Dennett and her story.
Lauren McIvor Thompson 9:06
Yeah. So, back in graduate school, when I was working on my dissertation, I was really interested in trying to figure out the connections between the Suffrage Movement and the Early Birth Control Movement. And I was very interested in the ways in which the Women's Movement in the 19th century had negotiated ideas about sex and reproduction. And you know, certainly those ideas were attempted to be kept out of the Suffrage Movement, even though there were many suffragettes who insisted that they should be part of the Suffrage Movement, that it was all wrapped up into one idea about women's rights, and as I was working on this, I came across Mary Ware Dennett's name because she had been the national corresponding Secretary starting in 1910 for the National American Woman Suffrage Association in New York City at their New York City headquarters. And, as I came across her name, I discovered that she had founded the first birth control organization in the United States. It predated Margaret Sanger's American Birth Control League, which was not founded until 1921. And Dennett had founded the National Birth Control League in 1915. And suddenly, I went down this rabbit hole about Mary Ware Dennett. And I'm thought: Why do we not know anything about Mary Ware Dennett? Why do we only know about Margaret Sanger? When we talk about the history of birth control? And so here we are.
Yeah, and so sometimes, and I've talked about this for various other topics, but sometimes the reason we don't know something is because there's not a lot of sources. But Mary Ware Dennett was a writer, she wrote a lot. It's not like we're lacking in her own words. So let's sort of talk about sources a little bit like how we know what we know about her, and then maybe we can talk to about why we don't know more about why we don't hear more about her.
Lauren McIvor Thompson 11:00
Sure. So yes, you're absolutely right, she left behind a ton of writing, everything from suffrage, to birth control to sex education, writings, and also writings on birth control and the law. And I think one of the reasons we may not even know much about her suffrage work is that as a as the corresponding secretary for NAWSA, she often didn't put her name on a lot of the literature that she authored for the movement and for the organization. And so she was writing these pamphlets that will be widely distributed across the country, but her name was not associated with them. She did author some pieces that went into places like the New York Times, or The Ladies Have Journal and things like that. So people knew who she was at the time. But then, in terms of the Birth Control Movement, certainly we have, you know, tons of newspaper articles, and again, pamphlets and things like that, that have her name attached to them. But over the course of, you know, 5-6-7-8 years that she was active in birth control from about 1915, to the middle of the 1920s, late 1920s. She her rivalry with Margaret Sanger actually, I think might be the the cause of why we don't know about Mary Ware Dennett. Sanger became the bigger personality. She did her best to basically silence Dennett and her organization which the National Birth Control league turned into what became known as the Voluntary Parenthood League. And I think in the ensuing decades with the development of the birth control pill, which of course Sanger helped fund and develop, you know, by the 1960s-1970s, you know, Dennett had been dead for 20 some more years. And I think people really associated the Birth Control Movement was Sanger's name and not Dennett. And even during Dennis lifetime, Sanger did her best to make sure that her name was the one that was associated with the movement and not Dennett. And this irritated Dennett, endlessly, because she really did do quite a lot to advance the movement. She was, you know, lobbying in Washington on the single handedly, you know, senators and congressmen to pass bills that would repeal birth control from the obscenity clauses of the Comstock Act. And she was, she was all over the place for many, many years. And then suddenly, it was like, she had never existed. So yeah, it speaks to how sometimes, even if the sources exist, it depends on who it who was framing those sources, and how you access the sources. Of course, her papers are in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. And anybody can go and look at them. And yet, I don't think that in our modern understanding of the Birth Control Movement, anybody has really, and most people don't really recognize the role that she played.
Kelly Therese Pollock 13:56
So I want to talk a little bit about Dennett's life and how that sort of influenced why she was so passionate about birth control. So she was married and had three pregnancies. Can you talk a little bit about that? And that sort of effect on her really caring about getting this information to women?
Lauren McIvor Thompson 14:18
Sure. Yeah. So she, like many women in American history had difficult pregnancies and laborers. She married, Hartley Dennett in 1900. And she soon became pregnant with her first son, whose name was Carlton, known as Carl. And then she had a second son, who was born in 1903 named Appleton and he lived for only maybe two or three weeks before he passed away, which was very common to lose children, especially within the first year of life in you know, that era. And then she has her third son Devin in 1905, who did survive, you know, to adulthood, but it was Devon's birth that, essentially, left her with a birth injury that would play her quality of life, her sex life with her husband. The doctor told her that if she got pregnant again, after Devon's birth, that it would probably kill her. And he refused to give her any birth control information. And so she and her husband, were kind of in the dark about what to do. And there was birth control information available, you know, you could, there were, you know, self help books and pamphlets and catalogs, but of course, they would have been, they would have spoken in euphemisms because sex information and contraceptive information and devices were heavily regulated by the Comstock Postal Act of 1873. And so she said that, you know, this, this lack of information, the, you know, even though those items were everywhere, and the information was out there, it was hard to know what was reliable and what wasn't in part, because this regime of obscenity had essentially created a situation in which anybody could distribute a board of fashions and contraceptive items and manufacturing, there's no regulation, there's no pharmaceutical regulation. And people take advantage of that space in order to make money. So, the stuff is out there, the information is out there, but it's hard to know what's reliable, and what's safe. And like many people Dennett was afraid of what might happen. If she did not, for example, take the right amount of medication or some you know, something like that. And so the only solution was abstinence. And she really, I think, looking back later in her life attributed that abstinence to her later divorce, Hartley Dennett ends up having an affair with a woman named Margaret Chase. Hartley Dennett was a architect and he had numerous clients. And one of these was a doctor and his wife named Dr. Lincoln Chase and his wife, Margaret. And the two families ended up getting summer houses near each other in New Hampshire. And this is during the period where, you know, the her boys are young, she's now being told that she really shouldn't have sex, because if she gets pregnant, it will be life threatening. And she has to also go get surgery for this vaginal tear that she had endured in 1905. And so she goes into the hospital in 1907. And she's been there for a long time convalescing. And it was in this period where Hartley and his client's wife, Margaret Chase, they ended up sort of getting together. And it's a love triangle. It was ended up being sensationalized in the papers because Dennett at that point, starts working for the Massachusetts Women's Suffrage Association. This is before she moves to New York and works for NAWSA. And she throws herself into suffrage work, because she knows her husband is having this affair. They can't have sex, like she doesn't she there's it's no accident that she turns to this political work. She called it later an "anesthetic for her troubles". And yet, she's absolutely embarrassed and horrified that her husband is having this open relationship. He and Margaret Chase and Dr. Lincoln Chase, talk about it being free love and the golden rule of love. And they talked about living in a love colony, and they want Mary to come join them. And she's like, "No, you're crazy, I will not do that". And she ends up suing for custody of her two sons in 1909. And they end up, she then goes through the divorce proceedings, I think in 1913. And again, it's all over the papers, because Dennett, Hartley Dennett's testimony is like Mary was just really mean to me. And that's why I had to, you know, seek, you know, solace in the arms of this other person. And, you know, she just doesn't believe in the power of free love and, and then it's just disgusted. And she, you know, I think, again, looking back on what had happened to her in her marriage. I mean, she, I think she really thought, wow, what if contraceptive information had been available? If sex were able to be discussed freely, without shame, you know, how would that have changed what happened to me and between me and my husband?, because she was very upset and bitter about the divorce and then you can see that in her personal letters. Hartley didn't pay child support. He wasn't very involved in his son's lives after the divorce happened. He treats Margaret and Lincoln Chase's children like his own, and that ends up creating issues with his own biological sons. And this is just kind of a mess. And I think that it's true when we say, especially within Women's history, "the personal was political". This was personal for Mary Dennett, her politics were personal. And they stemmed from her experiences with this patriarchal treatment from doctors, not to mention the patriarchal treatment by her husband, who insisted that somehow this free love, you know, was going to be the solution to, you know, an open marriage was gonna be the solution to their problems. And she just felt very betrayed by that. And so I think it's very interesting, you know, the trajectory of her political work really follows very closely with what's happening in her personal life.
Kelly Therese Pollock 20:43
Yeah. So you mentioned the Comstock Laws, we can't understand anything about what is to come in Mary Ware Dennett's life without understanding the Comstock Laws. So who is Comstock? What are these Comstock Laws? And I guess, maybe more to the point, how did they end up meaning that a married couple does not understand how to control their reproduction in a marriage?
Lauren McIvor Thompson 21:09
Yes. So Anthony Comstock was a vice reformer. He fights in the Union Army, I should mention he was he was born in New York, his mother died at a young age. And I think that, you know, his biographers have speculated that his zealous commitment to you know anything having to do with sex, pornography, sexual material, it might, he revered his mother. And I think that somehow, in his mind, you know, they have spent the, the biographers have speculated that somehow this attachment to his mother, watching his mother have children, and basically sacrifice herself for her children. It ends up getting all kind of mixed up in his head with his own shame and fear about sex. He records in his diary that he's ashamed of masturbation. He, you know, gets upset with himself whenever he does it and reports it, he goes into, he fights for the Union Army during the Civil War, he is absolutely appalled by the amount of pornography that is present in the soldiers camps. At that time, you know, this is the obscenity laws have not on the federal and local levels, are not what they would become later in the 19th century. And so soldiers are just carrying around all kinds of naked photos of people and you know, sexual, you know, store dirty stories, things like that. He's just horrified by this. So after the war, he moves to New York City, which was if you have read any of the books on kind of like post war, New York, you know, Timothy Guilfoyle and others have talked about the sort of hotbed of crime and vice that characterize New York in the late 19th century. And he shows up, he gets involved with the local, Young Men's Christian Association, the YMCA, he kind of associates with folks there, he decides that he personally is going to, you know, help grow this idea that they have for a Vice Committee. It was called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, the NYSSV. And he works with with folks around New York to get this off the ground. And he starts personally doing raids on shops that are selling alcohol, pornography, you know, anything having to do with sex, and it just grows from there. And by 1873, he is tasked by the YMCA and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to go down to Washington DC. He shows up with trunkfuls of porn, abortifacient material, contraceptive devices, dirty books, you name it, he lays it all out in these rooms of Congress. And he invites the congressman to come and look at this
enormous amount of you know, horrible, immoral material that is circulating around this country and we must put a stop to it and within I mean, it must have been one of the fastest laws they ever passed in congressional history. He gets those folks to sign on to a new law that would regulate the Postal Service. It becomes known as the Comstock Act. And it is it basically says that anything that is considered to be lewd, lascivious, obscene, if it if it somehow utilizes the Postal Service in any way, shape or form, you are now subject to federal criminal and civil investigations. It becomes a federal law, that you cannot use the mail's to distribute any of this and it had serious financial and personal consequences. People ended up paying hundreds of 1000s of dollars in fines, they go to jail for years on end. This is a serious anti-obscenity regime that Anthony Comstock inaugurates. And it certainly has a chilling effect on the ways in which people could access birth control and abortion information, because so many people are getting arrested for the manufacture and sale and advertising for these things. And that being said, though, I want to emphasize that it doesn't necessarily reduce the amount of advertising or sales being done, and it does not reduce the number of abortions or people using contraception. All it does is push these things underground. And we've kind of reinforced the association between sex and shame. Because people know, oh, this is illegal. I'm not supposed to be doing this. And yet, they do it anyway. And so we see advertisements. You know, in the late 19th century, post Comstock Act for, you know, in newspapers all over the country, advertising for pessaries. For you know, female tonics, female washes, they just couched these things in the language of hygiene and health. And that was the way that they got around the Comstock Laws. And I should also add, that states follow up the federal Comstock Law with their own mini Comstock Laws. And so all over the country, there are state level laws and local level laws that now also regulate obscenity. So you have a legal regime that goes from top to bottom, that's trying to regulate this stuff. And yet, you don't see any significant reduction in people. They're not stopping getting abortions, they're not stopping using contraception, and we're talking pre pill, we're talking pre hormonal contraception. So you know, none of it was very reliable anyway. But again, I think, as we saw in Dennett's case, it what it does do is allow, you know, dangerous pharmaceuticals to proliferate. That had been a concern since the early 19 century. In fact, state legislatures, when they first began to pass the anti abortion and anti contraceptive laws, they're not doing it because they're worried about morality, they're not worried about vice, but they are worried about is that these things are killing people. But they're also, they're also concerned, you know, concerned about pharmaceuticals in general, I mean, this is, before the FDA, there is no regulation of these kinds of patent medicines. And a headache remedy can just as easily kill you as a, you know, an soluble pessary that you would insert into the vagina. And you know, it both of those things can be harmful, because there is no regulation. And so, you know, this is this is the the regime that Comstock inaugurates. And this is the regime in which Mary Ware Dennett and Margaret Sanger are end up, kind of pushing back against, and they're very, very clear. And we want to remove birth control from the realm of obscenity, how do we do that? And you know that that was their life's work, but to them.
Kelly Therese Pollock 28:02
Yeah, and so I guess, then now's a good time to talk about strategy, because they, of course, differ very much in how they want to accomplish this. And I saw a lot of parallels, we've talked about the Suffrage Movement here, I saw a lot of parallels with the Suffrage Movement in thinking about, are we going to try to tackle this at a federal level or a state level? Are we going to break the law or change the law? Are we going to do what's expedient? Or do what's inclusive of the most people? And so there's a lot going on here. So can we talk a little bit then about sort of the strategies that that both Margaret Sanger and Mary Ware Dennett or taking in this in this attempt to change the regime?
Lauren McIvor Thompson 28:47
Yeah, yeah. And that's a really important question. And I think it the strategy is used what I'm talking about in my book, which is under contract with Rutgers University Press, and the tentative title is "Rivals for rights, Mary Dennett, Margaret Sanger and the making of the American Birth Control Movement". I'm really trying to
in on how these arguments that these two women made, what reverberations are we experiencing today because of the different ideological approaches that they used to attempt to legalize birth control? First of all, I should say, just in light of current political events, both women insisted that the only road to reducing the number of illegal abortions and dangerous abortions was to legalize contraception. So both of them really believed that if contraception were legally and widely accessible and available, that that would be the way the path to eliminating abortion. And so they people say, oh, you know, Margaret Sanger was pro abortion, you know, she wanted she you know, her eugenics, she wanted to make sure all women got abortions and killed all the babies and that's actually not at all what she was going for. She was a eugenicist and we that this could be a whole other podcast. But suffice to say, her motivation around abortion was actually to reduce the number of abortions because they were so dangerous for women didn't mean again that women didn't get them. They availed themselves of abortion all the time as part of their contraceptive universe. But obviously, they were dangerous, especially surgical abortions in sort of a pre germ theory era. So Dennett and Sanger are looking at this landscape and when Dennett founds the National Birth Control League in 1915, she founds it with two other suffragist friends Clara Gruening Stillman, and Jesse Ashley, who both worked with her at NAWSA. And both of the all three of these women were very irritated. The direction of the suffrage movement, they felt that it was very conservative. They didn't like the leadership, they felt very frustrated with the state, by state approach that the suffragist were using at that time when Dennett comes on board. It's really quote unquote, the "doldrums" of the suffrage era, because they're eking out these wins in states like Wyoming and Colorado for women's suffrage, but it's stalling everywhere, they can't get any traction on a federal amendment. And it's not until this kind of younger generation of suffragists just like Dennett, like Alice Paul, get involved and begin to bring renewed attention to a federal amendment. And so Dennett watches, even as she's founding the National Birth Control League, and even as she's leaves the suffrage movement and focuses on her work for birth control, she watches as a federal amendment strategy is the the winning strategy. Of course, the 19th Amendment was ratified. And, you know, they achieved they set, they achieved the goal that they set out to do finally, not state by state, but by federal amendment. So she takes that lesson, and she's applying it to her work with the National Birth Control League and then later renamed the Voluntary Parenthood League, they start lobbying the New York State Legislature to remove the word "contraception", from the obscenity clauses. They want, that they basically want what's known what they called a clean repeal, in which that word would just be totally taken out of the obscenity framework in the law. And it would allow completely free access for anybody who wanted to read or learn about birth control or purchase contraceptive devices through the mails or in a store or whatever. So that was her strategy. On the other side, we have Margaret Sanger, who obviously comes out of very radical socialist roots. She was a labor organizer before she got involved with birth control. She was also a trained nurse, she had gone to nursing school. And she is working in the slums of New York to treat women and accompany them through pregnancy and labor. She sees the impact that these pregnancy after pregnancy after pregnancy, the toll the physical toll that it takes on women. She sees the results of you know, women being forced to seek out unsafe abortions or use illegal contraceptives, and they're sick and they're dying. And that drives her to begin to connect her understanding of labor rights to birth control. And she goes on to found the American Birth Control League in 1921. But from the beginning, she is, her work first begins and is quite rooted in her feminism and her socialism. And she's, you know, her early publications, you can really see that, you know, 1914 1915 her writings are very much focused on this is a woman's right. Nobody should be able to tell women what they do with their own bodies. Dennett expresses similar sentiments, and yet saying our strategy is not to want to allow birth control access to be free to anybody. Instead, she really wants to filter that access through clinics, and through nurses and physicians. And so as Dennett is lobbying the New York State Legislature and eventually turns her attention to Congress, she goes to Congress, she goes down to DC she tries to lobby senators and congressmen down there, again with the kind of Clean Repeal bill wanting to remove the contraception from the obscenity clause of the Comstock acts. And Sanger is watching this and she's, at first mildly interested in the idea that hey, maybe federal legislation can work. I mean, I guess it worked for the suffrage movement, but she was not very. She did not like suffragists. She thought they were, she called them "unconstructive" and she had other nasty names for them. She really just thought these were like white gloved dilettantes, including Dennett. And so her strategy once she kind of abandons the feminism or bust framing of birth control, is to align it with doctors and nurses medical control. And she begins to insist that the only way that contraception should be legal is to create a new law that would say, well, doctors and nurses can distribute this strong stuff via clinics and via private practice. Dennett does not like this, because she says, Well, contraception has always been provided by doctors, you know, wealthy women have been able to go to doctors and get birth control and, you know, get surgical abortions. What you're doing by insisting that it be filtered through clinics and through physicians is making a, making a medical monopoly, you're eliminating access to the poorest people who need birth control. And so that was really kind of the crux of this ideological divide that Dennett and Sanger had between them. And so Sanger and the ABCL do lobby Congress for to change the Comstock Laws, but they really mostly focus their energy on attracting physicians to the movement, making it a medical movement, and also aligning themselves with eugenics. Because that, of course, was good science in this period, it was not considered quack science, like, you know, we, it has been reformatted into genetics, today. But eugenics at the time was an incredibly popular theory that it seemed to explain all of society's ills, right, if we can just figure out how to have the best kind of babies and only the right kind of people reproduce, then that's the ticket. And so that fits very neatly into this idea that medicine and physicians should be in charge of contraception and access, and so that they can ensure that the right kind of people are using birth control, etc.
I want to talk about this court case, then that that Mary Ware Dennett becomes involved in and so she doesn't go into this with the explicit intention of creating a federal court case. But she writes this pamphlet, ostensibly for her children. So can you tell us about sort of the the pamphlet the way that it then became something and what what she planned for.
Lauren McIvor Thompson 37:19
Yes, this is so important. And again, I think this is something that that shaped everything that came after it. And yet people don't know about this case, they don't know about her work as a sex educator. You know, as she and Sanger are fighting over the ideological direction of the Birth Control Movement, she writes a pamphlet called The Sex Side of Life, that was really mostly for her two sons, because she was very interested in getting, you know, not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the past, she wanted her sons who were then teenagers, you know, when they got married, she wanted them to be able to know, here's what you do, you know, with your wives, you know, so that you can have a different outcome than I did. And you can, you can control the size of your family, and so on and so forth. And so she writes a book called The Sex Side of Life. It's very factual. She uses the word penis and vagina, which was very taboo. Or she has very anatomically correct drawings, she does a lot of research for, to produce this pamphlet, she ends up kind of showing it to different people around New York, she shows it to Havelock Ellis, who was a you know, sex researcher kind of was having a big influence in, you know, the, the realm of sexology at the time in the 1920s this is a time of sexual experimentation in general, we start to begin to see the idea that people are very tired of, of the obscenity regime, they want to see, you know, a more expansive, you know, realm of being able to publish and write and do what they want. And so her pamphlet kind of sparks you know, the it kicks off an expanding anti obscenity regime, the right around the same time the American Civil Liberties Union forms the ACLU. And so when Dennett begins to distribute her pamphlet beyond just her son's she starts selling it to like the American Social Hygiene Association and the you know, other organizations that are like yes, actually, this is like nice factual sex education this is what we need, and for our young people to learn. And this will, this will keep them away from the the porn and the bad stuff you know, that's how they're learning about sex now, like this is actually how they should learn about sex is this like, nice factual pamphlet. And she gets arrested in 1928 when she's caught like mailing it to somebody and it's like a dummy mailbox, like set up by the Comstock henchmen. They, you know, when they when they wrote the Comstock or when the Act was passed in 1873, one of the the critical components of it was that there would be like this like squad that would investigate and people's mail and see what your they will open your mail and read it. So she gets caught doing, you know, mailing this pamphlet, and she gets arrested. And by this point, she is like a grandmother. You know, she's old and much older. She was like 38, already 38 years old when she moved to New York in 1910. So at the time, you know, she, this is happening in 1920. He is older. And it becomes a flashpoint in this fight over what constitutes obscenity. She kind of out of a case what winds its way through the courts, and it ends up being heard. In the it's called it was heard in the Second Circuit, it was called the United States versus Dennett. And they issued this verdict in 1930, where Judge Augustus Hand essentially says, you know, this is bait, this pamphlet is, is medical, is scientific. It's how it allows physicians to give the right advice to people. This is something we need. This is not obscene. And he that ruling just cracks wide open. This very tightly regulated market over sex and it sets the stage for other anti obscenity rulings, in particular the 1933 case where James Joyce's novel Ulysses was under was was on trial for being obscene. And they ended up saying, Well, this novel is not obscene. And it just the 1930s become kind of a, there's a lot of, I guess, pushback against what what had happened around the World War I era in the 1920s, when there was so much censorship. And now we're moving into this decade where suddenly censorship is not cool anymore. And courts begin finding in favor of people who are publishing this stuff. And it just it inaugurate a whole new set of decades in the 20th century in which the national conversation about sex turns from something that is not to be discussed to something to something that is discussed everywhere. And Dennis case kicks this off. There are other cases that come down the line that expand physician access to end the legality of physicians being able to prescribe birth control. But without dentists case, those would not have come down the line later. So this is a really, really, really crucial case. It's not heard in the supreme court summons. It's not a SCOTUS case. And yet, it is an example of the ways in which the courts have shaped ordinary Americans lives when it comes to their private decisions. And we're seeing that today, in terms of the Dobb's case, you know, the ruling. Dobbs is, you know, returning whether or not states can regulate abortion access, it's returning that decision to the states. And yet it really is a decision in which the court is intervening in people's private decisions. And it was the same in 1930 with this decision, but in that case, it actually expanded people's choices, as opposed to restricted them. So it really shows I think, the power of the courts and the ways that law shapes ordinary people's lives. And it shows, I think, to for better or for worse, mostly for worse, the ways in which the courts have shaped American's reproductive lives, all of our, you know, ability to learn about sex to to avail ourselves of abortion and contraception, all of that is shaped by the law and the courts. And that is the eternal debate. Is it health? Is it medicine? Is it law? Is it both? How are these things? How is the law regulating medicine, should it regulate medicine? And I think, again, going back to the debate between Sanger and Dennett. Dennett really believed that total free access to sexual information, contraceptive information was the way to go because she was afraid of the medical monopoly that the law would inaugurate. And indeed, that's what happened. Doctors in the aftermath of Dennet's case and these other cases that come down the line, in particular, the case that was a Margaret Sanger test case called One Package of Japanese Pessaries. That was the name of the case. And it also gets heard in the same circuit, the same judge, the same lawyers, hear this case in 1936, and they determined that, you know, that physicians should have the right to be able to freely distribute birth control. And that goes on to shape everything that comes afterwards, we see the proliferation of birth control clinics, doctors are prescribing birth control in their private practices. And yet, of course, birth control and abortion continue to be filtered through a very patriarchal medical lens in which, you know, this is the era you know, if a woman had surgery, her husband had to be consulted, you know, so on and so forth. There, they wouldn't give women their medical information, they would talk to the husband. So we have to understand that. You know, when Dennett and se are having this fight in the 1920s ever, you know, how is birth control going to be legalized? it the the outcome in which you know, Sanger basically won the day. Right. And that had profound consequences for how Americans were able to access birth control and abortion as it as it's navigated by the law as well. And I think today we're seeing those consequences because when the decisions of you know, Griswald v. Connecticut, as in 1965 is the SCOTUS case that legalizes birth control for married couples, and that's followed by Eisenstadt v. Baird, in 1972, which legalize it for single people. Those cases are not about women's rights, they do not talk about feminism. And they say, you know, this is about the private decision that a patient can discuss these options with her doctor. And if you look at the Roe v. Wade, decision, Justice Harry Blackmun actually says, I know the feminists, you know, want abortion on demand. But with this, we do not agree, we actually think that, you know, this is this is what the doctor decides, it's about doctors rights. So that's why we are where we are today. Because the the feminist like women's right aspect of birth control, and abortion just got completely subsumed underneath this ideological debate that Dennett and Sanger have. And, you know, saying are actually both women start off from a place in which, you know, the fundamental understanding is that women shouldn't be able to control their own bodies, they both say this over and over and over again, Dennett actually maintains that sentiment throughout her work to change the law, her congressional lobbying, because that's what she focuses on the entire time. She keeps saying, you know, if this, if there is a repeal of birth control from this obscenity regime, then that will allow couples to make their own decision. And she actually says, We believe that it is the right of to parents to decide whether or not they should have a child, not the right of physicians. And of course, Sanger is the total opposite. She said, these decisions need to be made by doctors, because only they know how to administer safe birth control, and effective birth control. And we have the data, we have the you know, the research from our clinics, all of these things. And that was a hard, I think, argument to combat just given the power. You know, this is the era where doctors are really professionalizing American medicine is becoming the kind of trusted profession that it became. That was not the case earlier in the 19th century at all. And so, you know, all of these things are working to basically narrow the path for birth control and abortion along along a very narrow path in which the next steps were close association with eugenic practices like sterilization, racist practices, around centering around birth control, research and administration of birth control. And we're grappling with all of those today, precisely because of the kinds of debates that Margaret Sanger and Mary Ware Dennett were having in the 1920s.
Yeah, we're certainly grappling with all those things to today. Just shortly before we got on to record one of my many email newsletters that I get sent an email that said, how to get an abortion by mail in your state? And I was like, Well, this is like all the things we're just about to talk about all in one.
Lauren McIvor Thompson 48:30
Oh, my gosh, I, Yes. I have a piece coming out about this actually about medication. Actually, I guess it already came out. It's about medication, abortion. We cowrote it with my colleague, Kelly O'Donnell, who's another Women's Health historian at Yale. And we published it in a medical journal, actually, and we called it Contemporary Comstock Array, because the the medication abortion front is, is the next kind of front for abortion rights, right? Because if they're going to restrict surgical abortion access, they're going to shut down Planned Parenthood clinics and other abortion clinics where you can go and get and get surgical abortions. The next kind of frontier is to try to maintain access to abortion drugs like Mifepristone and Misoprostol. And they have determined the FDA has determined that these are entirely safe, that you do not need to go to a clinic to use these, you know, under the supervision of a doctor, you can use them at home. You just use telemedicine visits to make sure everything's going okay. And they're completely safe in the first trimester. And so in that way, it kind of harkens back to like the ways in which women have always controlled their fertility, which is, you know, women understood in the past with that when their periods stopped. They understood that something was wrong and they didn't necessarily think that they were pregnant. Instead, they thought that maybe something had gone wrong in their body, or if they were under a lot of stress. You know, maybe I need to fix this, you know, all these things. So that's why they would take herbs and other concoctions that would start their periods. Again, they were called emmenagogues. So women often would have, you know, they would, they would have very early term abortions, and they would be using these things to just restart their period. The difference between then and now is that in those days, because of the the non regulation of the market, essentially, you weren't ever quite sure what you were getting, even if you grew those herbs in your own garden, if you use the wrong amount, it can be very, very dangerous. With the modern drugs, you know, misoprostol and mifepristone, those have been heavily tested, there's tons and tons of data to say that they're safe. And so it's kind of like, a much better way. You know, it's like doing what women have always done, but this time, it's actually safe and actually, you know, not going to kill you. As long as you do it right. Right? And so, you know, I think that this is the next frontier because the lawmakers are going to begin to target medication abortion, which is going to set up a showdown between the FDA and state law. It's raising all kinds of questions about the primacy of federal law versus state law. It's really an unknown future in terms of what is coming down the pike in terms of medication abortion, but we do know that, you know, the history shows us that women having abortions and using contraception at home is a constant, and it's an an inevitable and it's not going to change, regardless of the law status.
Kelly Therese Pollock 51:42
Right. Well, Lauren, I think we could keep talking for hours about this, but...
Lauren McIvor Thompson 51:48
There's so much more, I like glossed, I like didn't even get to like half of it.
So, let's then tell people how they can follow you on social media so they can keep up with the writing you're doing and your book that will come out in 2024.
Lauren McIvor Thompson 52:04
Sure. So, you can follow me on Twitter @lmacthompson1. I am an assistant professor of History and Interdisciplinary Studies at Kennesaw State University. And I'm also a faculty research fellow at the Georgia State University College of Law Center for Law, Health and Society. That's a mouthful, and I am working on this book called Rivals for Rights: Mary Dennett and Margaret Sanger and the making of the American Birth Control Movement, and it's under contract with Rutgers. I'm hoping to complete the manuscript before the end of this year, it will be in press by spring of 2023. And then hopefully out in either very late 2023 or early 2024. And I'm really excited about bringing Mary Ware Dennett story to a broader audience and to kind of put her back into the narrative about reproductive rights and justice.
Well, thank you so much. I am super excited to read your book when he's out. And I am just so grateful that you came and spoke with me and shared all this incredible information.
Lauren McIvor Thompson 53:04
Sure, this was fun.
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Dr. Lauren MacIvor Thompson is a historian of reproductive health, women's rights, and the law. She is an Assistant Professor of History and Interdisciplinary Studies at Kennesaw State University and also serves as the faculty fellow at the Georgia State University College of Law's Center for Law, Health, and Society.
Her book, Rivals and Rights: Mary Dennett, Margaret Sanger, and the Making of the American Birth Control Movement is forthcoming with Rutgers University Press in 2024. She has published numerous academic articles and op-eds including work in Law and History Review, The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. Her research has been supported by fellowships from the American Philosophical Society, the New York Academy of Medicine, and the Society for the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, among others. Thompson is also a frequent public speaker, including presentations at the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the American Society for Legal History, and the American Association for the History of Medicine, as well as national and international symposiums on suffrage and legal rights, reproduction, health, and medicine. She is a member of the national Scholars Strategy Network.