Students and staff members sat with open ears on Oct. 5 as Sarah Weddington recalled her life as an attorney, legislator, presidential advisor, professor, and leadership role model.
“This is based on a graduate of Keene State (Dr. Lila C. Murphy). When she passed away she left a fund and she wanted us to start a lecture series on women and leadership. So part of what I did was help to form a small committee to help pick the speaker,” Chief Officer for Diversity and Multiculturalism, Dottie Morris, said.
Sarah Weddington started out her life like any average girl: singing “Here Comes Santa Claus” at the Christmas pageant, being the drum major for the Canyon Junior High band, representing the Future Home Makers of America as president, being the secretary of her freshman college class, and studying to become a teacher.
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“Then I wanted to run for president or vice president of the student body. I went to talk to the campus Dean and he said, ‘You can’t do that’ and I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘Men are the vice presidents and the presidents, women are the secretaries.’ Well I thought, ‘Okay,’ but I still don’t like it and I’m going to try to figure out a way around it. So my roommate and I decided it wasn’t really that I wanted to be vice president or president, as much as I wanted to decide some things about the university. So we decided we would run my boyfriend for vice president and her boyfriend for president and we all won…and we ran the student body from our suite,” Weddington said.
After she did her student teaching in an eighth grade honors class, trying to make her students love Beowulf, she realized it did not work so well for her. She decided she should do something else and went back to the Dean, saying she wanted to go to law school. He again said she could not do that because no woman had gone to law school from that school and it would be too tough, but she went to law school anyway.
“A lot of it was wanting to change things that were sometimes laws, but a lot of the time attitudes about the opportunities women had,” she said.
She went to law school with only four other women in her class. After she graduated, she could not get a job. She ended up working for a professor at the law school. Not soon after, she made a decision that changed the lives of everyone. In 1973, she made her stand in the case Roe v. Wade, a trial on abortion. She argued before the U.S. Supreme Court for the decriminalization of abortion and won. She represented a group of graduate students from Texas University in Austin who gathered information about where abortion was legal and illegal and where the safest place to get one done was. The case became Weddington’s after the group decided to challenge the Texas statutes against abortion and she said she would take the case for free. She argued for the right of privacy and showed there were too many cases where women self-aborted and ended up in the infected obstetrics ward of hospitals. She is the youngest person ever, only 26-years-old, to win a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
She found out she won when a reporter called and her assistant picked up. “The reporter said to my assistant, ‘Does Ms. Weddington have a comment about Roe v. Wade?’ And my assistant said, ‘Should she?’ And the reporter said, ‘It was decided today.’ My assistant said, ‘How was it decided?’ And the reporter said, ‘She won it, 7 to 2,” Weddington said.
She ended up running for the legislation and was the first woman elected to the Texas House of Representatives for Austin and ran for three terms. “I’ll never forget; I had four people running against me, all men. And the one who ended up being in the runoff was a guy named Hugh Hornsby… Hugh Hornsby was really impressed with himself and when he would give speeches, he would say, ‘Oh Sarah Weddington, she is trying to confuse the voters. When she is on campus she wears her hair down and her skirts short and when she’s in the downtown part she wears her hair up and her skirts long and that shows she is trying to confuse the voters,’” she said.
“I thought it was a really, really good presentation. I came in not knowing anything about Roe v. Wade beside the general facts of it and I feel like I have a better understanding of it. And I think that it’s just amazing that Keene can get someone so influential to come here,” sophomore Becca Brandy said.
Weddington later got a call from Jimmy Carter asking her to work in the White House. She directed the administration’s work on women’s issues and leadership outreach from 1978 to 1981. It was a chance, she saw, to open the doors of government to a variety of people.
“I like how she started out by talking about leadership and I found it very inspirational to think about her being 26-years-old and arguing this case in front of the Supreme Court and just connecting that with really valuing something and being passionate about it and having a background in it and not being afraid to stop at anything. I think that’s a really great message and a good reminder for all of us to not stop fighting for what we believe in,” Co-Chair of Multiculturalism and CELT Coordinator of Experimental Learning, Becca Hickam, said.
Weddington also spent her life in the 1960s and 1970s fighting for the women’s rights movement. The women’s rights movement inspired her to push to change things and make life for women fair. “It puts a face to an important issue,” sophomore Rebecca Rieger said.
Weddington now works as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas in Austin teaching gender-based discrimination and leadership in America. She also continues to write, having published one book, “A Question of Choice,” as well as travels the world experiencing new things and new ideas.
Kaitlyn Coogan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.