She was one of the holy trinity of the Austin, “Great Austin Matriarchy.”
Sarah Ragle Weddington was born on February 5, 1945, in Abilene, Texas. As a child she was very bright and a good student. She participated in many activities. She was a drum major in her junior high school band, president of the Methodist Youth Fellowship (her father was a Methodist Minister) played the organ at church, sang in the church choir and was passionate about riding horses.
She was determined to go to college, though such was not done, in those days. It got very interesting along about here. Sarah graduated from high school two years early and enrolled in McMurray University earning a BA in English. “And the dean of the little college I went to said, ‘You can’t do that. No woman from this college has ever gone to law school. It would be too tough.’” And “’As sure as dammit I am going,’ I thought.”
But they did not want any women in the law school back in 1964. “Some of the professors wouldn’t let women into a class because that would be wasting time and effort on someone who would never really use the education. Another wouldn’t let women ask questions. They could only ask questions one day a semester.” During her last year of law school, she became pregnant and traveled to Mexico with Ron Weddington, whom she married in 1968, for an illegal abortion. Upon graduation from law school with her J.D. in 1967, in the top quarter of her class, not one would hire her because she was a woman.
She had a lot of concerns and questions at this time around her personal experiences, injustice the raging patriarchy, and the right to control her own body. Why couldn’t women in the Americas be treated as human beings and control their own bodies? Their bodies were being controlled by men!
“There was a building across the street from the University of Texas and a lot of student organizations had cubby holes there, with desks rescued from the garbage. In one little nook, women and some men were trying to work on women’s issues. One thing that was upsetting was that the university health center did not give out information about, or prescriptions for, anything relating to contraception. A couple of these women had gone to New York and got a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves—I still have this mental image of them in a closet with a flashlight reading this book—and they began to give the relevant information out to women. As they did, women would sometimes say: ‘I’m already pregnant. Where can I get an abortion?’ So they started going to places where abortion was available, and they’d write up that information, too. Sometimes, for instance, they’d write: ‘This person does not seem very skilled: never send anyone here.’ A lot of women were going to Mexico. Abortion was illegal there, too, but it was close to Texas, and sometimes women ended up in the wrong hands because people there wanted to make money out of the situation. The volunteers started going through the research on where could women go for abortions, and at that point California was legal. There was a flight on American Airlines every Thursday. Usually about ten women would be on that plane going to California for abortions. But you had to have money for the plane, you had to have money for the procedure, and so there was a need for money to help women who didn’t have enough themselves. We used to raise money through garage sales.”
I remember these days very well. I knew women who traveled for hours, out of their own states, to obtain an abortion. While I am by no means an advocate for abortion, I most certainly am an avid advocate for women’s right to choose.
As an aside, I also remember these times. It was in the late sixties, after delivering my first son, seeking birth control. My doctor was catholic, and I guess at that time I still listed myself as catholic. My husband was in pre med school, and I was a stay at home mom for a little while. We went to the doctor together and even with his “permission” the doctor still would not write a prescription for birth control! Thank you Planned Parenthood, they did.
“The upshot of all this was that the women students were getting worried the police might arrest them for being accomplices to abortion. We were sitting at the snack bar in the law school one day and one of them, Judy Smith, said: ‘We need to get a lawsuit filed and try to overturn the Texas law. Would you be willing to do it?’ I told her she would be better off with someone with more legal experience. I’d only done uncontested divorces, wills, one adoption for my uncle; I had no experience at all in federal court. ‘How much would you charge?’ she asked. When I admitted I would do it for free, she said: ‘OK, you are our lawyer.’”
As People reported, Sarah was fresh out of law school and only 26 years old when she took on the case of Norma McCorvey (who was operating under a pseudonym at the time, Jane Roe), a pregnant waitress from Dallas, who was ready to take down the restrictive abortion laws in the state of Texas. She was then the youngest person ever to argue before the Supreme Court. First in federal district court, then before the United States Supreme Court. Where she argued it twice; the first time there were only seven justices on the bench. “I was very nervous. It was like going down a street with no streetlights. But there was no other way to go, and I didn’t have any preconceived notions that I would not win. But I certainly was not confident. The attorney on the other side started by saying something inappropriate about arguing a case against a beautiful woman. He thought the judges would snicker. But their faces didn’t change a bit. It was impossible to read the justices’ faces.”
"As a young Texas lawyer, she stood fearlessly before the U.S. Supreme Court generating the landmark abortion rights decision that changed the course of history and opened doors for the generations that followed," Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas said in a statement on Twitter. They waited for the ruling from December 1971 to January 1973. They did win in a 7-2 vote.
In the interim she secured a seat with the Texas state legislature. “I was at the Texas legislature when the phone rang. It was a reporter from the New York Times. ‘Does Miss Weddington have a comment today about Roe v Wade?’ my assistant was asked. ‘Why?’ she said. ‘Should she?’ Then we got a telegram from the Supreme Court saying that I had won seven to two and that they were going to airmail a copy of the ruling. Nowadays, of course, you’d just go online.”
Sarah served three terms in the Texas state legislature, them became the first female general counsel of the US Department of Agriculture. She was then appointed special assistant to President Jimmy Carter and chaired the Interdepartmental Task Force on Women.
At the end of Carter’s term in office Sarah returned to Texas and was an adjunct profess at the University of Texas in Austin. She established the Weddington Center which was designed to encourage and support women as they found their way into higher leadership positions. Along with Ann Richards and Molly Ivins, they were thought of the holy trinity of the “Great Austin Matriarchy.”
“When I started the [Roe] case, the research in 1969, if anybody had said, ‘You will still be talking about this in 45 years,’ I would not have believed that. And so what I’m most amazed at is how long the issue has still been at the center of a lot of political conversations. I thought it would be some years before people sort of came to a common agreement that it was not the government’s business to decide women’s reproductive freedom. I’ve been surprised at how long it has really taken. And I don’t know how long it will take, but at some point, I’m not going to be willing to keep talking to anyone who asks me to do an interview. There’s a point at which you just get tired of that. It takes up a lot of my time, which, of course, is always pro bono. I did the case for free. At some point I am just tired of doing it, but I think the issue is so important. Soon, a younger generation, younger women and men in law school, are going to have to take on that responsibility.”
Sarah held honorary doctorates from McMurray University, Hamilton College, Austin College, Southwestern University and Nova Southeastern University. She and Ron Weddington were divorced in 1974 and she continued to live alone in Austin, Texas.
She was one of the people who persuaded the Americans that women are human beings. Which was no easy task, especially in Texas. Of which it is said: “Texas is a fine place for men and dogs, but hell on women and horses.” Sadly, Sarah passed away at the end of 2021, but she has left an amazing legacy. We must never forget the struggle and the brave women and men who fought in it…and it is not over. "I thought, over a period of time, that the right of a woman to make a decision about what she would do in a particular pregnancy would be accepted — that by this time, the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade. , the controversy over abortion would have gradually faded away like the closing scenes of a movie and we could go on to other issues. I was wrong."