In 1969, University of Texas at Austin students were not granted access to birth control unless they could certify that they were six weeks or less from marriage. University officials worked to acquire information they could share with students about contraceptives and abortion. UT alumna and attorney Sarah Weddington provided legal counsel to representatives to limit the possibility of being prosecuted as accomplices to the crime of abortion.
“I thought I was the only person who was willing to work on this case for free,” she said.
Weddington was 26 years old when Roe vs. Wade was first argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. A year later, she became the youngest person to win a Supreme Court case.
Weddington has had an extensive legal and political career. In 1972, she was the first woman elected to represent Austin in the U.S. House of Representatives. Weddington was also the first woman appointed General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She is currently an adjunct professor at UT, and is Friday’s keynote speaker for this weekend’s second annual Texas State Leadership Institute Conference.
JGP: Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
SW: One of the principles that I’m going to be talking about on Friday is what I call “course correction.” And I think as we’re younger, we have various ideas about what we think our future might be and when we move forward we think, “I don’t think so. I want something else.” So, when I went to college, if you had said to me, “What are you going to be?” I would have said, “I’m going to be an English and speech secondary education teacher.” And then I did my practice teaching with eighth graders and I was trying to teach them to love “Beowulf.” And I decided there had to be a different way that I would enjoy more for me to have a career. So, I went to the dean of our college and said “I think I want to be a lawyer.” And he said, “You can’t do that.” And I said, “Why not? I have very good grades.” And he said, “Yes, but no woman from this college has ever gone to law school.” So, you know the moment I decided I was going to law school. And I did. And I came here to the University of Texas.
JGP: What is the primary purpose of the Weddington Center?
SW: I wanted to start an organization, the Weddington Center, that would really focus on writing. I’ll be in the process of writing a book on leadership called “Taking The Steps of Leadership.” Professors, when they start writing a book, they have no idea when they’re going to be able to finish it, and that is exactly where I am. But I’m gathering lots of stories, quotes, all kinds of things. So I hope I can get it out next year. It’s about pulling ideas together, to be a mentor to people and certainly begin to write to a bigger group so people can have exposure to those ideas.
JGP: How did you become involved with the Texas State Leadership Institute Conference?
SW: First, there’s a quote that I’m going to use in the speech: “It’s not what you know. It’s who knows that you know.” And Janet Hale, who’s with the department of Finance and Economics, McCoy College of Business, is someone I had known in casual situations. And then Dean Arellano is someone who had been here at the University of Texas, so I had worked with her. They called and said, “We have the great Wittliff Collection, and if you came to speak here, you could see it.” And so I’m coming partially to see the Wittliff Collection, and certainly, as well, to work with your students. I’m honored to be able to come and spend some time with your students.
JGP: Describe your experiences after graduating from UT Law School up until you began working on Roe v. Wade.
SW: It was very hard for women to get jobs. Most firms weren’t used to working with women, so they were very hesitant to hire a woman. I was the first woman to have my way paid to Dallas to interview. The lawyers would say things like, “Well, women need to be home to cook dinner for their husbands. Lawyers have to work late. How could you do both?” I said, “I’ve been working my way through law school for a long time. I’ve had to do both.”
JGP: Where do you think we are today, when it comes to women’s reproductive rights?
SW: That’s a difficult question because we seem to be going backward. Right after Roe v. Wade no one was suggesting that women should not have access to birth control. Far more people were really trying to help make birth control and prevention of pregnancy available. But today we see a lot of effort by certain religious groups to try to make prevention really unavailable. Abortion is still legal, but those who are opposed to it are beginning to pass more and more restrictions that make it very difficult to have access: more extensive, more time consuming.