In an article published the day after her trial, the New York Times described the defendant as a “gray-haired, kindly-looking matron.” When she took the stand in the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, the 53-year-old grandmother introduced herself as a maker of decorative wall hangings and an occasional writer for magazines.
Maybe it was a sign of the times that such an unusual defendant could be facing an obscenity charge that spring afternoon in 1929. The decade known as the Roaring Twenties shook established conventions as metropolitan centers like Chicago and New York became the birthplaces of modern cultural movements that pushed old boundaries. Showing disdain for the conservative dress and sexual ethos of the past, women in short hair and short skirts, dubbed flappers, were sensationalized for their cavalier attitudes toward sex. Pushing limits further, homosexuals and gender nonconformists earned nods of recognition in everything from stage productions (Mae West’s The Drag) to popular music (Edgar Leslie and James Monaco’s “Masculine Women, Feminine Men”), benefiting from a level of social acceptance that anticipated the 1960s. Meanwhile, the popularity of jazz challenged racial barriers as black and white musicians collaborated on stage and in studios, and as black and white socialites mixed in lively venues like Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.
Amid those changes, some people still weren’t ready for the controversial publication Mary Ware Dennett was in court for distributing, even if that publication had been well received by the medical community and, furthermore, had been sent to such tame and respected clients as the Bronxville school system, state public health departments, and various religious and civic organizations like the Union Theological Seminary and the YWCA. The publication was one Dennett had written 11 years earlier for her two sons, then 11 and 14 years old. She wrote it after realizing that, without it, they wouldn’t receive the sex education they needed: “When my children reached the age when I wished to supplement what had been taught verbally, I sought something for them to read.” After searching “some sixty volumes,” Dennett decided to give up and write her own material. Continue reading