THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Sarah Catherine Ragle Weddington
February 5, 1948 – December 26, 2021
“The truth is we changed the world, but we need you to help keep those changes.” – Sarah Weddington to the younger generation
Sarah Weddington’s remarks from the Veteran Feminists of America event: Salute to Feminist Lawyers, Honoring Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Harvard Club, NYC, June 9, 2008
My name is Sarah Weddington. In 2003, I had a call from Time magazine. Time magazine said, “We are going to do a special issue of Time on 80 days that changed the world, and we believe in 1973, Roe vs Wade was one of the days that changed the world. Would you write the piece?” I was happy to do that. It started out it was going to be a long piece. Then they called and said, “The Iraq war is starting, we have to cut it to 125 words.” It was a very short piece. And of the 80 [they selected], only ten were women. But we really have changed the world.
I look back. And when I got the call to come and be part of this event with all of you, I was thinking about how did that happen? To some extent, I would say I came of age at a time when there were so many impediments for women that each time somebody said, “women can’t, women don’t, women shouldn’t,” we thought, “oh, yes, we do, we will.” I grew up playing half-court basketball, and after two dribbles, it was traveling, a technical violation and I thought, I really could run further than that.
I grew up thinking I was going to teach 8th graders to love Beowulf. Except then I discovered if you were a teacher and got pregnant, you had to quit in Texas. That didn’t seem right. So, I thought I’d go to law school, and went to the dean. He said, “You can’t go to law school.” I said, “Why not? I have very good grades.” And he said, “No woman from this little college, McMurry in Abilene, Texas, has ever been to law school. It would be too tough.” So, you know the moment I decided I was going to law school!
I graduated and couldn’t get a job. I did go to Dallas eventually, after a fight over whether firms would pay women’s way. And they said things like, you’ve all heard them, “Women have to be home at night to cook dinner and lawyers have to work late; and we would have to cuss out young lawyers. We can’t cuss you. You’re a woman.” And I did not get a job. Now, 13 years later, the senior partner in charge of my interview wanted to be a federal judge. And there were three people who had to sign off on federal judgeships, the Attorney General of the United States, the congressional liaison, and me.
Now, I’ve always said, you should be nice to everyone you meet. You never know when you’re going to see them again. His mother should have told him that, because instead of coming to talk to me, he sent another lawyer to tell me I had to approve him. Now that I call the fatal error, and he never got to be a federal judge. Another part of that era was reproductive issues. The University of Texas would not give contraception to women unless they were within six weeks of marriage so they could be protected for their wedding night.
The result was a number of unplanned pregnancies and a group of women, some men helping, were trying to first tell women about contraception and second, tell them where they could go if they ask the question, where could I go for an abortion? California was legal by then. California was one of those wonderful places. The work people did made it a place we could refer [to]. New York was legal. A lot of women were referred up here, but there were a lot of women who couldn’t afford that. What I had been taught in law school was, if there was a problem, you filed a lawsuit. Now, if they had said to me, “Would you mind trying a US Supreme Court case?” I would have said, “I can’t do that,” because at that point, I was helping write the Code of Ethics for lawyers.
I had done uncontested divorces, wills for people with no money, and one adoption for my uncle. But they needed help, and they needed somebody who would do it for free. That’s how I got the case. So we filed Roe vs Wade, thinking some other case would make it to the US Supreme Court.
In fact, a few years later, I got the notice from the Supreme Court saying, we will hear Roe vs Wade. Get ready. One of the scariest things I’ve ever done is argue in front of the US Supreme Court. All male, at the time. I thought Justice Douglas would be my friend. He never asked a question, just kept writing something.
I went home having no idea if I’d won or lost. I decided I better run for the Legislature because I could try to do something from there. We had already started working. Texas affirmed the Equal Rights Amendment that summer. We were already working on laws which would change the rape laws in Texas, equal credit, time off for teachers, equal consideration for custody for men and women in divorces, and a lot of other things.
I was at the Capital on January 22, 1973. The phone rang. An assistant answered that line. Some of you may know that Ann Richards was my administrative assistant. Assistant answered the phone. The New York Times said, “Does Miss Weddington have a comment today about Roe vs Wade? And the assistant said, “Should she?” And the reporter said, “It was decided today.” And the assistant said, “How was it decided?” And the words came back: “She won it seven to two.” It was so exciting because it changed the world. What we have collectively done changed the world.
If you come to my office today, I have that handmade goose quill pen. Several of you have a souvenir for having argued in front of the US Supreme Court, because so few people ever get to do it. And then if you win, you can write in, pay a little bit, get a color picture of the Supreme Court and ask them to autograph it. I have my color photo autographed by each individual judge, even the dissenting judges. People will say, “Well, can you get one of those if you lose?” And I say, “I don’t know. I’ve never lost in the Supreme Court.”
But the truth is, we all won it. Nancy Stearns, Estelle Griswold, Planned Parenthood Council. There are a lot of you who were involved in helping us win. Two quick, final comments.
One is, thank you so much to Sylvia Roberts, to Muriel Fox, to all the others involved in organizing this. You see, part of the reason we could individually do so much is we weren’t really alone. We knew other people to write, to call, to talk to. People would send us information and suggestions. And it is a real feeling of camaraderie to see people. Of course, none of us have changed from that time period.
It has been a real special treat. And also, to see some of the younger women who are here – because the truth is, we changed the world. But we need you to help us keep those changes. Thank you.