Roe v. Wade lawyer speaks at UNCW on 40th anniversary of the case
Published: Friday, March 1, 2013
Updated: Monday, March 4, 2013 10:03
People who have heard of Sarah Weddington usually only associate her with the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case that legalized first-trimester abortion in all 50 states.
This never-met-a-stranger kind of woman is more than a well-known attorney.Weddington's also an author, a professor, a former assistant to President Jimmy Carter, a three-time member of Texas legislature and an authority on leadership.
Coming to UNCW
“I was pretty amazed how personable she was, being a high-profile figure. She is a historical woman even if she doesn’t like to be introduced as one,” said UNCW senior and president of the Women’s Studies Student Association, Lauren Habig. “She is so warm and inviting. She really drew you in to ask a question—just her presence put you at ease.”
Habig worked with friend Brooklyn Hildebrandt, president of the UNCW Pre-Law Society, to bring Weddington to campus.
“She was speaking at Duke, and we found out about it,” Hildebrandt said. “We thought, if she’s there, let’s find a way to bring her here, too.”
Hildebrandtapplied to UNCW’s Student Government Association for a grant on behalf of the Pre-Law Society, in order to get the last $200 needed to bring Weddington to Wilmington.
Her efforts paid off. Rows of students, professors and Wilmington locals gathered in the Burney Center Feb. 26 to hear Weddington speak.
Weddington started off the evening by remarking that there would be time for a Q&A.
“I really like audience questions, so you will have 15 minutes to do your own questions. In the meantime, I want to plan questions. I will use you to guide my remarks,” she said to the audience.
She pointed people out in the audience, determining who would ask the questions that she ultimately planned for her lecture—an unconventionally brilliant speech.
“You could tell that she knew exactly what she was doing,” Hildebrandt said. “And you could tell that she was a law professor— it was the Socratic method.”
When members of the crowd recited their questions one by one, Weddington jokingly said, “That is a great question, thank you for asking!”
The crowd’s laughter rarely ceased during the entire speech. Even though many of her comments were humorous, like the one about a FBI report that included details about a woman’s unshaven leg hair, the topics that Weddington discussed were serious.
The first assigned question was answered with the future in mind.
“What I mean is that it is very hard today to really plan what your future will hold. I think the important thing is to learn attitude that will help you learn how to react to a changing world,” Weddington answered.
Roe v. Wade days
Weddington says that the Roe v. Wade case “fell into her lap.” Her original plan was to teach English and speech in order to “make eighth graders love Beowulf.” When she finally figured out that the English teacher gig wasn’t for her, she decided to go to law school.
“I went to the dean of our small Methodist college,” Weddington said. “And he said, you can’t do that, it would be too tough—no woman in our college has ever gone to law school.”
But that didn’t stop Weddington.
“People kept telling her no because she is a woman. Law schools were under no compulsion to take women,” said history professor Kathleen Berkeley. “None of that ever holds her back.”
After paying her way by working three jobs, Weddington graduated law school at the age of 21 but was unable to find work as an attorney. These were the days of back-alley abortions, a dangerous time for women with accidental pregnancies, according to Weddington. Female teachers weren’t even allowed to work if they got pregnant.
“A group of women said that we ought to file a lawsuit. I had no contested legal experience, but they wanted a woman to do the case, and I was the only one they knew who would do it for free,” Weddington said.
Weddington said that she couldn’t sleep the night before the oral argument, worried that if she lost, she would lose the opportunity to make such a significant impact on so many people’s safety.
But at only 26 years old, Weddington won. Although the supreme has not historically kept up with records, she is believed to be the youngest person, male or female, to win a Supreme Court case.
Never say never
Weddington has not argued in front of the Supreme Court since her 1973 debut, but she still advocates many political changes. In one story she told during her speech, she recounted that after being denied a credit card without her husband’s or father’s signature, as soon as she got to the Texas legislature she helped pass the Equal Opportunity Act.
“I explained to him that it was my income that would put my husband through law school… I was already a lawyer, and I had several jobs,” Weddington said. “I went back to the same man to get my credit card. And I still have it too.”
This attitude is what Habig and Hildebrandt admire most about Weddington.
“She’s all about, 'I saw a problem, and I fixed it.' I wish there were more people like that in the world,” Hildebrandt said. “Students I know are always saying, I care so much but what can I do? Her attitude is what can’t I do?