My conversations with an American Icon
By Dee Jae Cox
There is a saying that, ‘Once you become fearless, life becomes limitless.’ That is the legacy of attorney Sarah Weddington, who at the age of twenty-six, changed the course of American history!
I find few things in my life more engaging than one-on-one dialogues that both inform and inspire. My conversations with Sarah, the famed attorney who argued and won the passage of Roe V Wade before the Supreme Court, were some of the most educational, entertaining and motivational exchanges I have ever experienced.
Our conversations left little doubt that she was a woman of depth, intelligence and substance. She had a wonderful sense of humor and spoke with a Texas accent that was warm and genuine. Sarah was without question, a leader and an icon, whose history-making accomplishments would be read in books and debated long after her passing.
My partner Michele Weiss, and I had invited Sarah Weddington to Palm Springs, as the Keynote Speaker for the “Women Making History,” event that we were producing. It was 2016 and America was about to shift on its axis. Women were marching around the country and the globe, in protest of the misogynistic serial abuser who had just been put in the White House. Sarah was a reminder that we can prevail even against what seemed to be insurmountable odds.
I had a million questions to ask and I was pretty sure that most were ones that she had been asked a thousand times before, but her responses never sounded rote. She maintained the passion for her work and her achievements, retelling stories she must have memorized, yet each word fresh and exciting, as if I were the first, she had ever shared the information with.
Sarah said that she had heard a saying, “To be a leader, you must feel comfortable with being different.” She had always felt different. She grew up as the daughter of a Methodist preacher. Her father’s church required that they move every four years. She was continually being asked to reestablish herself, make new friends, and be a leader. She became an officer in the Methodist Youth Fellowship, President of her High School Chapter of the Future Homemakers of America, (the only school organization where a girl could become President.). She went on to college, became a teacher, (an acceptable career for a woman,) and then an attorney, (not so acceptable.)
It was during her last year of Law School that she faced a choice that thousands of women are forced to make on a regular basis. She was working full time to pay for school, about to graduate into a field that already had many biases against women. Ron Weddington, her future husband, was finishing up his undergraduate degree, before also planning to attend law school. He had served in the Army after high school and was now playing catch-up with his career. Neither had a desire or the means to become parents during this time. As with most women, even now, who face this painful dilemma, her fear of moral judgment was great. She lived in Texas where women had to draw on a deep reservoir of inner strength just to move beyond the social constraints placed on them.
Driving from Austin to Eagle Pass Texas, on an early Friday morning, Sarah and Ron checked into a motel, then crossed the border into Mexico and saw a doctor in Piedras Negras. She said she felt fortunate, she had heard so many stories of women who died or suffered great injury. Perforated uteruses, ingestions of toxic chemicals, sometime throwing themselves down stairs in hopes of a miscarriage. Women who bled to death from botched abortions and women who were permanently injured or killed by unqualified practitioners or self-induced abortions.
Yet unlike the experiences of so many other women at the time, the doctor she saw seemed competent, the office was clean and the abortion did not leave her in a critical condition, but it was an experience that forever altered her world view. Any woman, at any time, for a multitude of reasons, could need access to a safe abortion. Republican controlled states have increasingly made it more difficult for women to exercise reproductive freedom. Placing exorbitant risks on women’s health, safety and lives.
Most want to know about Sarah Weddington’s historical win before the Supreme Court. How did a 26-year-old woman from Texas, of all places, come to represent Roe v Wade and alter the course of millions of women’s lives?
In her book, “A Question of Choice,” Sarah wrote; India Gandhi is reported to have said, “I have felt like a bird born in too small a cage.” That is just how many of us women born in the 1940’s, felt in the 1960’s. We were born and grew up at a time when social and legal restrictions forced women into narrower roles than we longed to occupy. We were told “Women don’t,” “You can’t,” “That would be too strenuous for you.”
American writer Molly Ivans, said that the chauvinism in Texas was so powerful that only strong women survived it. That aptly described the circumstances for Sarah. She was one of only about 40 women, in a student population of 1600, when she started Law School at the University of Texas. An atmosphere that made no secret of viewing women as interlopers in a field belonging to men. Despite being in the top quarter of her class, just like many great women before her, i.e. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, she struggled to get hired by a law firm upon graduation.
A professor of Sarah’s offered her a position on the American Bar Association’s Special Committee on the Reevaluation of Ethical Standards. While working there, she began researching the legalities around Privacy laws, abortion in particular, since it was a critical and sometimes lethal issue concerning women. While studying the history of Abortion in the U.S., she learned that there were no laws prohibiting abortion in English or American law until 1828, and those laws were not about the protection of the fetus or a debate about when life began. They genuinely seemed to be intended for the protection of women. Surgery was dangerous and infections were high. Antiseptics and antibiotics were unknown, (issues that are not a serious threat in contemporary times, since abortions are now some of the safest surgeries available, when done in a sterile, professional environment.)
In early 1970, Sarah and another attorney, Linda Coffee, met ‘Jane Roe,’ in a pizza parlor in Dallas. (Roe, later became known as Norma McCorvey.) Sarah, described Roe, as in her early twenties, petite, outgoing and talkative. She’d had a rough life, had only finished 10th grade and was working as a waitress. She’d had one child who had been taken away and was certain that she did not want to continue the pregnancy. She indicated that if she had this baby, she would lose her job and she could barely support herself, much less a child.
Roe agreed to be the plaintiff in the case and on March 3, 1970, “In the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division— Jane Roe, Plaintiff, v Henry Wade, District Attorney of Dallas County, Defendant. Case number 3-3691-C.”
Known as Roe v Wade.
Fundamental human freedom was what the case was about. Protecting rights of privacy guaranteed in the Constitution. Sarah argued the case in Federal court before a 3-judge panel and won, because the Texas law deprived women of their right to choose not to have children,
(based on the ninth amendment.) Unfortunately, it still left doctors vulnerable and unprotected from criminal charges for actually performing abortions. Texas state officials made clear that they would not stop prosecuting, regardless of how unconstitutional their laws were. Women in Texas were still basically unable to receive a safe and legal abortion. The case was filed directly with the Supreme Court.
Roe v Wade, became a case of national interest. A stack of documents measuring over a foot high, was submitted prior to the case being heard in the Supreme Court in 1971 and 1972. Weddington led the efforts in conjunction with other law professionals, to prepare and present this monumental case to the highest court. The research and preparation took up an enormous amount of time and resources. A male attorney from New York had insisted that he was more experienced and knowledgeable and should be the one to make the argument before the court. Though he was older with a longer work history, he was not more capable. Several other women who were also working on preparing the argument insisted that this was a case that needed to be presented by a woman. Regardless of how sensitive a man might be, he did not understand the emotional urgency of an abortion. And so, twenty-six-year-old Sarah Weddington, who had first filed Roe v Wade in Dallas Texas, became the youngest attorney to ever argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Roe v Wade was decided by a 7-2 majority in January of 1973. Sarah, had just been elected to her first term in the Texas House of Representatives, (she served three terms) and got the news of her Supreme Court win, through a reporter who called her state office to ask for a response. There was obviously no internet at the time and she didn’t even know they had won. A messenger arrived after the reporter’s phone call to inform her of the decision. Abortion was now legalized throughout the country. For a time, before the right-wing opposition began, there was a great sense of relief. Women would finally stop dying from dirty, back alley, botched abortions.
Sarah liked to tell the story of once wearing a button on an airplane that had a coat hanger with a red circle around it and a line diagonally across the center. The flight attendant passed her several times and looked at the button without commenting. The attendant finally stopped, “I have to ask, what do you have against coat hangers?”
To the attorney that had dedicated her life to reproductive choice, the flight attendant’s question symbolized that a whole new generation of women had grown up with easy access to safe and legal abortions. They did not remember the lethal methods, including the use of coat hangers, that women in previous generations had been forced to resort to in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies. It was a feeling of great accomplishment and achievement.
Throughout our conversations, I never got the sense that Sarah ever stopped worrying about the permanence of the rights Roe v Wade afforded. She had at one time believed that decades after the decision, Roe would be accepted as settled law. But the threats were endless and women always seemed to be on the precipice of losing those rights and once more being forced into life threatening circumstances. Our last conversation was during the Trump Presidency. She fully recognized the danger his administration posed, especially if the political make-up of the Supreme Court changed. Which it eventually did.
In her argument to the Supreme Court, Weddington said;
“We are not here to advocate abortion. We do not ask this Court to rule that abortion is good or desirable in any particular situation. We are here to advocate that the decision as to whether or not a particular woman will continue to carry or will terminate a pregnancy, is a decision that should be made by that individual. That, in fact, she has a constitutional right to make that decision for herself and that the state has shown no interest in interfering with that decision.”
The passing of Sarah Catherine Ragle Weddington, on December 26, 2021, comes at a time when the fate of Roe v Wade hangs so precariously in the balance and feels like the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy. She was a woman who had dedicated her life to ensuring all women had personal freedoms and choices. The loss has most certainly been a personal heartbreak for me.
Winston Churchill, said, “those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” In 2021, 59% of Americans, (62% of women,) believe that abortion should be legal and that women should have freedom of reproductive choice. Yet a vocal and active minority have continued to chip away at free choice until reproductive rights have now become critically endangered. Sarah Weddington was a heroic and history-making woman. A leader in a time when half of America’s population were denied their basic human and constitutional rights. Her impact on the country and women’s history is cemented. Who will pick up that torch?
Dee Jae Cox, is a playwright, director and producer. She is the Cofounder and Artistic Director of The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Project. www.losangeleswomenstheatreproject.org
And Co-Creator of the Palm Springs Theatre Go-To Guide,