THE ``SEX SIDE OF LIFE'' by Constance M. Chen


Mary Ware Dennett's Pioneering Battle for Birth Control and Sex Education
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 This first book by a founding editor of Men's Journal is an impressively researched biography of an undersung leader in the American birth control movement. Mary Ware Dennett was at the forefront of several reform movements of the early 20th century, including the suffragist movement and feminism. Unlike her rival birth control activist, Margaret Sanger, who courted publicity shamelessly, Dennett is not well known; this is the first biography of her. Dennett's dedication to sex education and birth control evolved out of her own experience. Suffering serious physical consequences form the births of three children, Dennett was advised by doctors not to have any more, yet they never mentioned contraception; Dennett and her husband stopped having sex altogether. Her husband fell in love with another woman; their custody battle and divorce trial were widely publicized. Devastated by the breakup of her family, Dennett threw herself into suffrage work. In 1915, unable to find for her sons material on sexuality that was neither moralizing nor overly clinical, she wrote a pamphlet called ``The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People.'' This short work became quite popular and was distributed even by the conservative YMCA. But it led to Dennett's conviction in a celebrated 1929 trial after the pamphlet was seized under the Comstock laws. Chen explores Dennett's emotional and political lives with equal care, quoting liberally from revealing correspondence, such as love letters between Dennett and her husband. Unfortunately, though, Chen pushes her own moral agenda as heavy-handedly as any early 20th century reformer. Writing, for example, about the Dennetts' marital problems, Chen charges, ``After a few generations, such dissolution of the family could only mean the ultimate disintegration of civilized life.'' Despite her gracelessly wielded value judgments, Chen has made a strong contribution to the history of birth control, feminism, and sexual mores. (25 b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: June 13th, 1996
ISBN: 1-56584-132-8
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: New Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1996