photo by Gray Hawn

Leading by Example

What do you do when the defining moment of your career arrives at age 26? If you are Dr. Sarah Weddington, you roll with the punches, seize opportunities when they materialize, welcome new challenges, and lead by example.

Born in Abilene, Weddington is the daughter of a Methodist minister and teacher. As her father changed churches, the family moved frequently throughout West Texas, living mostly in small, rural towns. Looking back, Weddington says this background shaped the person she would become. “I come from a family of hard workers. A family that values education. I have always had a passionate interest in justice and how things ‘ought to be.’ I think it was, in part, because of my father’s emphasis on what he called ‘Christian responsibility’ and working to improve the world for others. Also, like many other children of preachers I have talked to, I always felt different. To be a leader, you must feel comfortable feeling different. It made it easier for me to strike out in directions that were unusual for women.”

Strike out she did. Weddington attended McMurry University in Abilene, entering at age 16 and graduating at 19. Initially she planned to become an English teacher, but looked to other avenues after her brief experience in teaching made her realize that she could never teach eighth graders to love Beowulf. Weddington soon found that law school was open to students regardless of their degree and made an appointment to talk to the dean. “I told him that I wanted to go to law school and he said, ‘Well you can’t.’ I asked him, ‘Why not? I have very good grades.’ He replied that no woman from the college had ever gone to law school and it was at that moment I decided I would go. UT was the only law school I applied to. The thought did not occur to me that I might not be accepted.”

Weddington was accepted and entered The University of Texas School of Law in 1965, one of only five women in her class. Always the leader, Weddington was then elected secretary of her first year class and made many lifelong friends. Determined to graduate with no debt, she worked three jobs while attending law school full time. Although she doesn’t recommend this route to her students, Weddington worked as an assistant house-mother for the Delta Gamma sorority, which provided her with room and board. She worked as an insurance clerk for Austin Radiological Associates, and in her spare time typed and edited papers for fellow law students. “In 1965 if someone had looked at my class, no one could have guessed which of us would try a United States Supreme Court case, and no one (including myself) would have guessed it would be me.”

Upon graduation in 1967, Weddington discovered that becoming a practicing lawyer would prove difficult for a woman. “I was the first woman from UT Law to have her way paid to an out-of-town interview. A firm paid my travel expenses from Austin to Dallas. The senior partner in charge of interviews asked me questions like ‘Lawyers have to work late, but women have to be home in the evening to cook dinner. How could you do both?’ and ‘To train a young lawyer, we have to be able to cuss him out, but we couldn’t do that to you – you’re a woman. How would we ever train you?’”

When Weddington’s evidence professor, John Sutton, offered her a job as his assistant to rewrite the Canons of Ethics for the American Bar Association, she jumped at the chance. It was during that time that a group of young women (mostly graduate students) approached her for legal advice. They were part of a volunteer counseling effort to provide information about preventing pregnancy. The women needed to know if they could also provide the information they had on legal abortion in other states and warnings about the worst places to get an illegal abortion. They wanted to know whether, if they did provide the information, they could be prosecuted as accomplices to abortion, which was illegal in Texas at the time. This simple query began the journey that led to the pivotal case that is Roe v. Wade.

“If they had asked me at the time if I would mind trying a case before the United States Supreme Court, I would have said ‘no way.’ At that point I had handled uncontested divorces, wills for people with no money, and one adoption for my uncle. That was my entire case experience. Later, I asked the women why they chose me and they said, ‘We wanted a woman and we needed someone who would work for free.’ I never thought it would go to the Supreme Court.”

The decision to take the pro bono case would shape the rest of this young lawyer’s life. Time magazine included Jan. 22, 1973 (the day the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down) as one of the “80 Days that Changed the World.”

On Dec. 13, 1971, the 26-year-old lawyer stood in front of Chief Justice Warren Burger and eight associate justices taking rapid-fire questions. She argued a case that would impact all women in the United States. “I was extremely nervous, although I was well-prepared. I was clearly out of my depth. It was my first contested case, but I understood the weight of the decision and the need to win for women. After listening to women and physicians who had seen and experienced the consequences of illegal abortion, I knew the laws must change. I believed then, and do now, that women, and not the government, should make their most personal reproductive decisions. When I left the Supreme Court, I didn’t know if I had won or lost the case. I returned to Austin to wait for the decision.”

Meanwhile, back in Austin, Weddington met with a group of like-minded women who believed that to effectively address women’s issues, women had to have a voice in the legislature. She took $100 from her savings account for the filing fee and soon entered the race for the state legislature. She managed to stay out of campaign debt by limiting her spending to $13,000 including a run-off election. In 1973, Weddington became the first woman from Austin/Travis County to serve in the state legislature. Although there were 76 new members out of 150, only five were women. “I was so excited because I knew progress could be made. The new members had a lot of ideas for change. It was a golden time. We worked together in a bipartisan spirit to solve problems. There was not the bitter division that exists between the parties today. We passed a number of significant reform bills regarding women’s issues – an equal credit bill, rape reform measures, and a bill preventing the firing of public school teachers due to pregnancy.” Twice re-elected, Weddington served as a member of the Texas House of Representatives during the 1973, 1975 and 1977 sessions.

On Jan. 22, 1973 while serving her first legislative term, Weddington headed for her office at the State Capitol. At 9 a.m., the phone rang and a New York Times reporter asked her assistant if “Ms. Weddington has a comment today on Roe v. Wade.” The assistant replied, “Should she?” and the reporter informed the assistant that the case had been decided favorably by a margin of 7 to 2, making Weddington, at 27, the youngest person ever to win a case before the Supreme Court. The official telegram from the court informing her of the decision arrived at her office, collect, shortly after the call. “I was very excited. The next task was being sure that medical services became generally available. We wanted the principle of choice to become a reality for women, not just words in a court opinion. If I had been told that we would still be talking about Roe as a pressing controversy 32 years later, I would never have believed it. Yet it continues to be very much a part of every election, a part of public debate, and a part of evolving legal issues. We certainly never envisioned that the issue would continue to be ‘hot,’ that abortion providers would be the target of so much harassment or that the decision itself would be in danger of being overturned. The women’s right to reproductive freedom is getting pushed back every year. I believed then as I do now that women and not the government should make their most personal reproductive decisions. I started work on Roe v. Wade in 1969 and have been defending it ever since.”

Although Dr. Weddington is best known as the attorney who argued Roe v. Wade, her journeys and achievements have been wide-ranging. Many times she has found herself in places she least expected. In 1977 she was nominated by President Carter to serve as General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, becoming the first woman to hold the position, and at age 32, the youngest person to serve as General Counsel of a cabinet-level department. “One of my clients was the U.S. Forest Service and one of my most memorable experiences was an eight-day horseback trip into the wilderness areas of Montana. I remain committed to preserving the allowing public access without that access diminishing the wilderness. I am very sad and concerned about the incursions into these areas today.”

Opportunity knocked and Weddington answered the call in 1978 when President Carter asked her to serve as assistant to the President, the highest White House Staff title. She was the President’s advisor on women’s issues and a liaison to leaders throughout the country. “I loved working at the White House. My office was above the Oval Office. I spent occasional weekends at Camp David, flew on Air Force One and attended state dinners. Among my special memories are arranging briefing sessions with international leaders like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and co-chairing the U.S. delegation to the Mid-Decade Conference on Women in Copenhagen in 1980. I admire President Carter and his wife, Rosalyn, greatly. We have remained close. He is the only president to have used the presidency as a stepping stone to doing more important things.”

Leadership and career firsts continued as Weddington returned to Texas to become the first female director of the Texas Office of State and Federal Relations. She was a founding member of the Foundation for Women’s Resources, Leadership Texas and Leadership America. She was also instrumental in the creation of the Women’s Museum in Dallas.

In April of 2001, Weddington’s journey took an unexpected and unwelcome turn when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Receiving and accepting the diagnosis was especially difficult because her younger sister had died of the disease in 1985. In typical Weddington fashion, however, she faced the disease head on. Naming her tumor ‘Darth Vader,’ she used creative visualization to picture its demise. Friends worried when Weddington arranged for a burial plot in the Texas State Cemetery strategically located next to Bigfoot Watson, a lifelong bachelor. She then allayed their fears by taking a vacation to Paris with two close friends prior to treatment, which included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. “I returned from Paris with six new pairs of earrings, determined to live and wear each pair.”

In July 2002, Weddington was officially declared NED (no evidence of disease), a diagnosis she continues to monitor gratefully but warily. “I have come to think of my cancer cells as Osama bin Laden...I don’t know if they are dead or alive or hiding in some cave waiting to attack.”

Following her treatment, Weddington turned her attention to supporting groups that support those with cancer. She served as honorary chair of the 2002 benefit for the Austin Breast Cancer Resource Center, calling on friends Molly Ivins and Shannon Sedwick to make it the most successful fundraiser ever. She continues to speak extensively on the subject and remains an active supporter of the Komen Foundation, the Race for the Cure and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, as well as the Breast Cancer Resource Center. “Recently I attended a benefit for the Armstrong Foundation and two phrases stuck with me: ‘the obligation of the cured’ and ‘putting hope in motion.’ Weddington also actively supports the American Heart Association and Planned Parenthood.

A lifelong learner, Weddington currently divides her time between teaching, writing, speaking and a passion for travel. She speaks often on issues relating to women, leadership and self-renewal for leaders. Her speaking venues range from national conventions to colleges and universities. In April 2004, she addressed over a million people as a speaker at the March for Women’s Lives in Washington DC. In September 2006, she was featured as the inaugural speaker for the Barbara K. Fergus Women in Leadership lecture series at the John Glenn Institute for Public Service at Ohio State University. “It was such an honor to be the inaugural speaker. At age 80 plus, Senator Glenn is so vibrant. So engaging. It was a privilege to be there with him.”

Weddington continues to teach at The University of Texas at Austin, serving as an adjunct professor. Her classes, “Gender-Based Discrimination” and “Leadership in America” are open to seniors with a 3.5 or better GPA and to those with a special interest in women’s issues and those who have been campus leaders. “I love teaching. I learn from my students every day. They keep me current on the issues. They teach me about things like blogs and how to maximize exposure on the internet. I am proud of my legacy of opening doors for women. Many young women today take for granted the rights we fought for because they have never been without those rights. They need to know those rights are in danger of being taken away. That is why leadership skills and getting these women involved is so important. As I teach and lecture I am pleased to find more and more enlightened young men that are very supportive of and interested in women’s issues.”

Having caught the travel bug while serving in the Carter White House, Weddington travels extensively and as often as possible. Her journeys have taken her to China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Spain, Italy, France, Peru, India, Nigeria, the Turks and Caicos and most recently, to the small island of Mustique. “I learn so much when I travel. I believe we are all citizens of the world and other people and other cultures do matter. I like to visit friends all over the world. That way I can experience what it is like to live in a place. I also visit my students. When they invite me to look them up, I take their offer seriously. When I visited one of them in India, I saw women carrying rocks in baskets on their heads up an incline and dumping them into trucks. It was hot and miserable, yet they persisted and climbed again and again. I remember thinking, ‘I will never think of myself as hardworking again.’ Weddington also knows how to celebrate life in special ways. This February she celebrated her 60th birthday with friends at Carnivale in Venice. It was a large, formal event complete with masks.

In a life filled with firsts, unexpected opportunities, and enlightened journeys, Sarah Weddington has embraced it all. She once gave a lecture entitled “Some Leaders are Born Women.” Fortunately, for generations of women, in February of 1945 in Abilene, TX, one woman came into the world a born leader, destined to lead by example.

Extracted with permission from Austin Woman.

Article by Deborah Hamilton-Lynne