This Woman Secured the Right to Choose at 26 Years Old
Sep 5, 2018
The night before December 13, 1971, 26-year-old Sarah Weddington couldn't sleep— and with good reason. The right to a safe and legal abortion was hanging in the balance, and it was up to Weddington to defend women's bodies and their choice.
"I was very conscious that the fate of many women for many years would be resting in part on my argument," Sarah Weddington recalls in an interview with MAKERS. The next day, the young Texas attorney would stand before the U.S. Supreme Court to deliver the argument that would decide whether or not American women had autonomy over their reproductive rights.
It would take over a year before the young attorney knew the result of her testimony for Jane Roe and all American women. On January 22, 1973, Weddington's assistant picked up the phone— it was a reporter from the New York Times asking for a comment from Weddington on the Roe v. Wade decision.
"My assistant said, "'How was it decided?'" Weddington recalls. "And the reporter said, 'She won it—seven to two.'"
While Weddington's pivotal role in the landmark decision is what she is most known for, the Texas feminist has been defying those who said women "can't" long before—and long after —her history-making argument.
YES, SHE CAN
As the daughter of a Methodist minister in Abilene, Texas, Weddington says she was always "different" but not in the stereotypical "pastor's daughter" way. Weddington says she was raised with the "gospel of Christian social concern."
"[My father] was very much a person who taught that we should care about what's happening to people around us and then we should try to do something," Weddington recalls. What Weddington noticed all around her were the countless barriers women faced because of their gender.
"The things that they said to me 'you can't do,' I wanted to push back barriers so women could do those things," Weddington says proudly, now 73. Anytime Weddington was told no because of her gender, she defiantly fought back.
In high school, Weddington played basketball where girls were only allowed to play half-court. Of course, the young feminist challenged her coach as to why women couldn't play the full-court like their male peers. "I was one of those women saying, 'why can't we just keep running?'" says Weddington.
"I learned that when people said women can't, women don't, women shouldn't, that we should try. And many times when you try, you're able to do it," says Weddington.
After graduating college at 19, Weddington became interested in attending law school. But, the University of Texas McMurry Law School dean told her she couldn't because the program was "too tough" for women. Weddington took the dean's discouragement as a challenge—and she won. She became one of five women admitted to the University of Texas Law School in 1964.
"Later there was an article in a local paper that said, 'First Female McMurry Graduate Graduates Law School,'" Weddington remembers laughing. "I wondered what he was thinking that day."
GIVE HER SOME CREDIT
As an adult, Weddington often guaranteed the struggles she faced didn't affect the next generation of women. When Weddington first applied for a credit card, a bank teller denied her application because she needed a signature from her father or her husband.
"I thought, 'I'm putting him through law school. Why should I have to get his signature?' That seemed to me unfair.'"
Weddington would later right this wrong by becoming the first woman elected to the Texas House of Representatives from Austin, passing an equal credit bill for women. During her three terms in the Texas House of Representatives, Weddington continued to be a fierce advocate for women by reforming rape statutes and blocking anti-abortion legislation.
Weddington also went on become the first woman ever to serve as General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the first female director of the Texas Office of State-Federal Relations.
However, her most prominent act of resistance would be the case that would forever emblazon her name in history. Despite making headlines for completing law school, Weddington didn't receive any offers from law firms following her graduation.
Instead, she met a group of graduate students running an underground newspaper called "The Rag" advising women on birth control and where to get safe but still illegal abortions. Having had an abortion herself after an unwanted pregnancy with her boyfriend and later her husband, Ron Weddington, she knew the importance of the magazine's work.
"Having a law that made abortion illegal didn't mean there was no abortion. It just meant that abortion was not safe. And often it was very dangerous and done under terrible circumstances," says Weddington.
Other MAKERS recall this time as marked by a fear of becoming pregnant and having to resort to dangerous extremes. While Weddington herself underwent an abortion in Mexico, women across the country were suffering from irreparable injuries from self-abortions and back-alley abortions.
"All of the public hospitals in Texas had what they called the 'IOB' ward, or the 'infected obstetrics' wards they were places set aside for women who ended up with all kinds of problems— infections, losing their fertility," Weddington recalls of the pre-Roe v. Wade era.
After giving the publication legal advice after the university tried to prohibit its distribution, she went a step further and challenged the Texas abortion law itself.
The new lawyer would go from receiving no job offers to arguing the case that would become her legacy: Roe v. Wade. She is also believed to be the youngest person ever to argue a case before the Supreme Court— and win.
The legacy of the historic case is in jeopardy with the impending confirmation of a conservative judge to the most powerful court in the nation— the Supreme Court. Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative D.C. Circuit Court judge, many women's organizations and politicians believe that, once again, women's reproductive rights hang in the balance.
"If anyone had said then that you would still be talking about this in  years, I never would have believed that it would be a major issue," says Weddington. "Here we are years later, and it is still one of the most important and critical issues in American life."