When Sarah Weddington successfully argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court 40 years ago, she thought an end to legal battles over abortion was in sight.
As part of the Jean Fox O’Barr Distinguished Lecture series, Weddington discussed her career, her experience with sexism and how to be a leader. This year is the 40th anniversary of the landmark case that declared it unconstitutional for a state to prevent a woman from having an abortion.
“I’m shocked we’re still talking about it,” Weddington said to a crowded audience at Reynolds Theater Wednesday.
At 27, Weddington was the youngest person to successfully argue a Supreme Court case. In addition to her age, she also faced the challenge of being a female lawyer in a male-dominated field.
Weddington recalled persistent sexism throughout her education in her hometown of Abilene, Texas—including being told she could not run for student body president or apply to law school.
“The sexism in Texas was so strong—I had to be strong to survive,” she said.
Nevertheless, she persevered and earned her law degree—but employment options for a female lawyer in 1960s Texas were scarce, she said.
In her first job interview, the employer’s chauvinism showed through, she noted, adding that the lawyers felt women were incapable of fulfilling the demanding work schedule given that they had to be home to make dinner.
“I tried to explain that I’d worked my way through law school and had time management skills and could handle it,” Weddington said.
Unable to secure a job at a firm, Weddington was hired by her law school to research how to challenge anti-abortion statutes—a positive move.
“If I had gotten a job at a firm, I wouldn’t have had the time to try Roe v. Wade,” she added. A group in Austin who had been working to tell women about contraception and abortion options brought the case to Weddington. The organization was concerned that they could be prosecuted for being an accomplice to the crime of abortion by sharing the information with women. Among these women was the Roe v. Wade plaintiff—under an alias—Jane Roe.
“I said, ‘I don’t know if I’m the right one,’” she noted. “I’d never done a contested case before.”
Interestingly enough, she added that there were religious groups from several denominations—such as Methodists, Southern Baptists, Presbyterians and numerous Jewish groups—that supported her position during the critical trial. These groups, she added, filed pro-choice amicus briefs to the Supreme Court.
After Roe v. Wade, Weddington pursued a variety of positions, including as an assistant to former President Jimmy Carter and a college professor.
Weddington also spoke to the current state of women’s reproductive rights, noting the situation has become more difficult for women in recent years due to the fact that Republicans have become more rigidly anti-abortion.
Defining leadership as the “willingness and ability to leave your thumbprint,” she specified three aspects crucial in expressing leadership: the ability to adapt to a difficult situation, a critical eye and the acceptance of one’s imperfection.
“You take a situation that isn’t what it ought to be and make it different,” Weddington said. “It’s looking around you and thinking what needs to be changed.”
Weddington’s ideas on the role of leadership were intriguing, noted sophomore Clair Hong, adding that Weddington’s personal struggles as a female attorney prompted her to have a more critical eye as a female college student.
“[Weddington’s] inability to apply for a credit card without the permission of her husband, who had been earning less than her, was surprising and really brought me back to her time period,” she said.
Mark Rutledge, the United Church of Christ campus minister and a participant in the abortion rights movement since the 1960s, expressed his appreciation for Weddington’s speech.
“Men need to be in solidarity with women who are still fighting this,” he said.