(L) THEN: Weddington was 26 when she argued Rose v. Wade before the Supreme Court. (R) NOW: Weddington, now 64, still worries about women’s access to all reproductive options.
When Sarah Weddington argued Roe v. Wade at the Supreme Court nearly four decades ago, the lawyers’ lounge at the high court didn’t even have a women’s restroom.
Despite the then all-male court’s lack of attention to that most basic women’s issue, the court in 1973 voted 7-2 to legalize abortion. And the landmark decision came in large part thanks to Weddington, who was only 26 when she argued the case.
While she never argued another case before the Supreme Court, Weddington has frequently been at the forefront of women’s activism.
She was one of the first women to become a state representative in her home state of Texas, and to serve as general counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Jimmy Carter. Later, she worked for Carter at the White House, where the administration allocated the first federal money to domestic violence shelters. In 1992, Weddington recounted her experiences arguing Roe v. Wade, and evaluated its aftermath, in her book A Question of Choice.A breast-cancer survivor, Weddington is thriving at 64.
She will visit Portland on Sept. 25 to speak to the Oregon Women Lawyers group about breaking barriers. Weddington, who is currently a professor of leadership and gender-based discrimination at the University of Texas, took some time to speak with WW over the phone.
WW: Were you scared or nervous when you began to argue Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court in 1971 at age 26?
Sarah Weddington: Absolutely. It was my first contested case.… It was in the U.S. Supreme Court, and hardly anybody gets to argue there when they are 26. I’m shocked when I think of it.
Was it weird to have reached the pinnacle of your career at such a young age?
You know, it’s a good question, because I’m kind of thinking about that now. I am on the cusp in a few months of being 65, and so you kind of look back and think, “What have I done? What do I want to do now?” And it’s like I have become a historic figure! I haven’t figured out the answer to that question, except to try to protect Roe.
You began by working with volunteer counselors who were trying to give out birth-control information at the University of Texas; how did the Roe assignment come to you?
Because I said I’d do it for free. I had not been able to get a job with a law firm at that time. I had been out of law school a couple of years. But it was really before women were accepted.
Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe”) now thinks you and Linda Coffee (your fellow attorney in Roe v. Wade) used her as a pawn. Does that make you wish you had chosen a different plaintiff?
Well, looking back, I certainly wish we had picked a different plaintiff. But you see, she always said she was so proud to have been involved—until 1995.
What changed then?
Well, what I have heard—she has not told me—is that she was working at an abortion clinic, and in the same area of offices, there was a group of people who were very opposed to abortion. And so eventually they visited, and she changed her mind. But you see, from 1973 to about 1995, she was very glad to have been involved. In fact, she wrote a book called I Am Roe where she talked about how proud she was to have been part of it.
What do you see as the largest struggle for women of this generation?
Access to the entire variety of reproductive issues and techniques. I was never for abortion being available. I was for women having all options.… You have a lot of states where the legislature is controlled by people who, if they had the voting strength, would just outlaw abortion. And so since they can’t do that because of Roe v. Wade, they keep trying to pass various measures to make it almost impossible for people to have access to services. The second part of that, I think, is looking at who is going to be on the Supreme Court.… I really don’t know what [new Justice Sonia] Sotomayor’s position is going to be on various issues I care a lot about.… Any time there is an appointment, you know, you worry.
Maybe men should be encouraged to use male birth-control pills.
Men ought to make better decisions and take part of the responsibility. I just don’t see it as being of an equal level with the difficulty of attitudes about what women should and shouldn’t do.
What do you think of President Obama so far on female reproductive rights?
In general, very good.… It does seem that sometimes he is trying to nod to both those who are opposed to abortion being legal and available and to those who are not.… I wonder sometimes if he is trying to reach out to everybody about everything. And that’s very hard to accomplish.
What are the biggest mistakes in women’s and abortion rights of the past 35 years?
If you had said to me 36 years later, “You will still be talking about this,” I would have said, “Oh no.” That just seemed impossible to me. Because I thought once people knew what it was to be able to make their own decisions about reproduction, they would be so adamant that that would not change, that you wouldn’t have to keep fighting that.… The opposition is absolutely determined. They may change faces a little bit, but they continue to be adamant about trying to make reproductive services unavailable, illegal if they could.
Being a women’s activist, did you have trouble dating?
Well, yes. I mean, I was married earlier and then divorced. And the problem for me was just I was so busy doing all of the different things I did. Dating was not my first priority.
Did you meet men who were—?
A little intimidated, shall we say? And then, I think, you do worry that somebody is asking you out not because he really likes you, but because he wants to brag about taking Sarah Weddington out.… Every once in a while, you think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have somebody to share my life with?” But the truth is, I have got so many friends. And I am very lucky in that regard. A lot of people thought they had found someone to share their life with forever, and either that person died, or there was a divorce, or other things have happened. So it’s like most women my age—I think I am correct to say most, I think the statistics are most—end up by themselves. I just got there by a different path.
What do you want to accomplish in the future?
My students have never had somebody say, “You can’t do that because you’re a woman.” And I don’t want them to ever have someone say that. But it means there is not the same motivation to try to change things.… I think there are still some employment problems that are much more veiled. I think there are lots of things for us to keep working on, but the main ones right now to me are the economic issues and domestic-violence issues. And then continuing to try to make all services available for reproductive issues.
ATTEND: Weddington will speak Friday, Sept. 25, at 3 pm at the Waterfront Marriott, 1401 SW Naito Parkway. Tickets, $20-$50, are available online at oregonwomenlawyers.org.