"Sanger v. Famous Father of 18!," #29, Winter2001/2002

For someone who claimed she hated to speak in public, Margaret Sanger rose to the occasion dozens of times each year, addressing large audiences in auditoriums, with protestors outside and police in waiting; small gatherings in living rooms for tea; and everything in between. She spoke to university students, women's societies, civic and religious organizations, medical professionals, young parents – just about any group but school children. When asked to participate in a debate, however, she usually declined. Though feisty and quick on her feet, Sanger generally avoided organized public encounters when she was not assured of control. When she did accept a debate, it was usually against someone predictable and therefore vulnerable, always against men, and she dictated the rules.

A good example is Sanger's 1920 debate with John Winter Russell. A New York lawyer and recent convert to Catholicism, Winter Russell was still new to the issue of birth control and the teachings of the Catholic Church. In his remarks he fumbled along, equating birth control with abortion and recounting from personal experience the short, unhappy lives of couples who chose to have small families. Periodically he exclaimed that one cannot have pleasure without pain. Sanger began her rebuttal. "Now, Mr. Russell has said some things that are very interesting to me. He tells us that we cannot have pleasure without pain. It is a man who is speaking. It is very peculiar that Nature only works on the one side of the human family when it comes to that law. She applies all the pain to the woman. It is absurd – a perfectly absurd argument in the face of rational intelligence to talk about marriage being for one purpose." After several more retorts and a clear, passionate defense of small families, Sanger had disarmed her opponent and left him sounding unsure of his own arguments. He closed the debate awkwardly with the notion that birth control kept the unborn from heaven. (Dec. 12, 1920, [MSM S76:923-943.)

Sanger did debate some worthy opponents over the years who presented reasoned arguments against birth control, but she clearly preferred predictable opponents: the rock-solid religious conservative who would fall back on Scripture, exhibit male chauvinism and serve up a stew of medical misinformation.

So it was somewhat surprising that Sanger agreed to a May 14, 1931 debate with Chief Justice Richard B. Russell of Georgia's state supreme court. Justice Russell was the father of then Governor-elect Richard Russell, Jr. and 17 other children. Russell (no relation to the 1920 debater, Winter Russell) was an extremely popular public figure in Georgia, noted for the legal and literary scholarship of his judicial opinions. Sanger was also informed (by one of her organizers sent down to Atlanta to dig up some background material on Russell) that the judge was quite famous for ridiculing his opponent and planned to secretly run up to Washington to hear Sanger speak prior to their meeting. Sanger may have been encouraged to hear him described as "an old fashioned type of man," and surely reinforced her preconceived notions of him on the news that he "chews tobacco and keeps a cuspidor on the stage. (Constance Heck to Sanger, May 6, 1931 [LCM 89:666].) But Russell presented a greater challenge than Sanger usually sought, especially as he had the home field advantage; the debate would take place in Atlanta among many Russell friends and family members, making it difficult for Sanger to remind the audience that five of Russell's children, over two marriages, died in infancy. Partly for these reasons and her need to always control the terms of the debate, Sanger insisted that she both open and close the contest.

Financial considerations may have been the deciding factor for Sanger in going forward with the debate, even though she received only $250, much less than her usual debate fee of between $500 and $1000. The Depression had suddenly hit Sanger quite hard. She struggled to meet salaries for staffs at both her Washington lobby group, the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control, and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in New York. And she could no longer rely on her husband to make up budget shortfalls; J. Noah Slee had accumulated significant loses on Wall Street and was in danger of losing his seat on the New York Stock Exchange. The Sangers still lived relatively well, but cash was scarce.

Russell, with his three youngest children in college, apparently needed the money too, as he agreed to the debate over the objections of at least one of his offspring, the Governor-elect, who reportedly said he would have given his father the money rather than have him "exploit" the family. (Heck to Sanger, May 6, 1931 [LCM 89:666].) According to Russell's wife Ina, the Judge was in it for more than money; he wanted to use the debate to educate and persuade others to oppose Sanger-backed legislation to open the mails for contraceptives and contraceptive information to be sent by doctors. Ina Russell wrote to her daughter Pat on May 6, ". . . Yes, dad does get some money – $250. That's the why of it – but you know he would not mind debating that subject . . . I do hope dad will impress the young people of our Beautiful America how terrible it would be if the bill was passed in Congress to send the vile, dangerous doings broadcast over our land." Yet, according to Russell's granddaughter, Sally Russell, who edited her grandmother's letters, it was Ina Russell, one of thirteen children herself, who was the one who opposed birth control in their marriage, refusing to consider using a contraceptive the Judge brought home one day not long after the birth of one of their sons. She wanted him to bury it in the backyard. (Sally Russell, ed. Roots and Ever Green: The Selected Letters of Ina Dillard Russell [Athens, GA, 1999], 289, 40.)

All of the pre-debate publicity emphasized the size of Russell's family. The photo reproduced here of Russell with his 13 surviving children appeared in many newspapers at the time with captions such as: "Can you guess which side Richard B. Russell . . . is going to take." (Griffin Daily News, May 8, 1931.) Called a "leading opponent" of birth control, though he had no public record on the issue, the press portrayed Russell as a favorite son, "one of Georgia's clearest and deepest thinkers." (Weekly Jackson Herald, May 7, 1931.) Newspapers referred to Sanger simply as the leader of the birth control movement in the U.S., reminding readers of her frequent arrests and various books on the subject.

By all accounts the debate thoroughly entertained the audience at the Erlanger Theatre in Atlanta. Unfortunately no transcripts of the debate survive. The most extensive coverage ran in the Atlanta Constitution, where B. R. Crisler, no doubt longing to leave journalism for dramaturgy, gave the ringside call:

Mrs. Sanger was first in the field, trotting out her light cavalry of statistics, her portable and compact artillery of logic and of modern ideas. And like a good strategist, she had not failed to provide her forces with an inexhaustible commissary of information. The old Roman [Russell], whose eloquence played no small part in winning him the place of honor on Georgia's supreme court bench, must have realized that here was a different and somewhat disconcerting antagonist to deal with.

But the Lady's opening speech was merely a ruse; merely a skilled maneuver to draw the enemy out; for she is the sort of fighter who must have something definite to strike at; and there was a very clever little ambush prepared!

The enemy marched into it, too, with trumpets blowing and flags whipping spectacularly in the breeze. It was the Roman phalanx going grandly and unsuspectedly into a nest of machine guns. Taking his text from the Scriptures, Chief Justice Russell reminded his opponent of the Biblical injunction to Noah, "increase and multiply.

"Rat, tat, tat", the machine guns in rebuttal, spat like so many snakes. "And it might be opportune to remind my opponent," Mrs. Sanger parried, "that when God laid this command upon Noah, there were only five people on earth. My opponent must admit that the situation has altered a little since then."

But people, the phalanx contended, are motivated by pure selfishness when they refuse to have children. In glowing words he painted a picture of a happy family group – the more numerous the better – with the mother and father actuated by feelings of self-sacrifice, willing to bear the pains and economic tribulations of life as well as its merely sensual pleasures.

Once more the machine guns spat. "I love," Mrs. Sanger remarked, laconically, "to hear men talk about the pain and sacrifice entailed by childbirth! They have so much first-hand knowledge."


Crisler called the debate "pretty decisively in favor of the lady." Apart from handily refuting her opponent, it appears Sanger was able to inject highlights from her recent speeches and Congressional testimony on a birth control bill, including persuasive arguments on the economic and health benefits of birth control. It does not appear she made any reference to the size of Russell's family, nor felt she needed to take the debate to a personal level. "It is for us to choose," the Constitution quoted her in conclusion, "a decreased birth rate or an increased death rate." Russell, Crisler noted, went down "like the noble old Roman he is–with the standards of the legion intact." ("Margaret Sanger Given Verdict at Debate Over Birth Control," Atlanta Constitution, May 15, 1931.)

In recapping the debate, Ina Russell told daughter Pat on May 23 that the "small" crowd (no other estimates of crowd size were given) favored Sanger: "Of course, every body, almost, was for Mrs. Sanger ‘cause every body who is up-to-date, practices and believes in birth control." She commended her husband for making "some good points," but complained that "Some women sitting behind me called him ‘old fool' and they said, ‘he just doesn't know what he is talking about.'" ( Russell, Roots and Ever Green, 290.)

Sanger had once again chosen the perfect set-up man as debate opponent, catering to her assertive style and ability to posture birth control as a leading economic and scientific issue. She told a supporter a couple of weeks later that "I think dear old Judge Russell was thinking in times of Noah's Ark. He had no facts and had just read all the old Catholic arguments and kept clinging to these as if he were an advocate of the pope." (MS to Landon Thomas, May 29, 1931 [LCM 89:736].)

The lively debate was one of the few victories for Sanger in the early 1930s as her efforts on Capital Hill bore little fruit. Her confident manner and polished debate tactics during congressional testimony on a series of birth control bills played well to adherents to the cause, but may have increased congressional resistance. Many of the congressmen she confronted – traditionalists espousing predictable arguments against birth control – must have met her criteria for easy debate prey, but in the complex power-structure of Congress, at the mercy of political maneuvering, Sanger could not always recognize the opposition or control the terms of the debate.