Sarah Weddington’s legacy includes mentoring feminist leaders in Texas

Farah Diaz-Tello was a student at the University of Texas at Austin when she heard about a course on gender discrimination open to undergraduates and aligned with her interests.

The course, Diaz-Tello recalls, was “chronically oversubscribed.” And, at the time, she did not really know the beginning of the career of her instructor, Sarah Weddington, who died this weekend at 76.

Nonetheless, she contacted the law professor, with good results. Weddington agreed to let her audit the course, treated her like all the other students, and wrote a letter of recommendation to Diaz-Tello when she applied to law school herself. The letter, she said, was “the kindest and most generous letter.”

And, of course, Diaz-Tello – like thousands of other young Texans over the decades – has learned Deer vs. Wade, the 1973 United States Supreme Court ruling, of the woman who successfully argued the case.

“I can’t say enough about how educational it was to see someone in this position, to learn more about the civil rights aspects of gender justice and to really see a woman as a role model,” said Diaz-Tello, who is now a senior lawyer and legal director of If / When / How, a reproductive justice organization.

Born and raised in Abilene, the daughter of a Methodist pastor, Weddington was not likely to aim to be a national political figure. Becoming a lawyer was, in itself, an unusual accomplishment for a woman of her generation, and her early career was shaped by discrimination as well as her own talent and accomplishments.

As an undergraduate student at McMurry College, for example, one dean scoffed at her stated ambition to go to law school, cementing her determination to do so. After graduating from the University of Texas Law School in 1967, she couldn’t find a job at a law firm. It was a difficult situation that other women found themselves in as well, she later explained, as companies weren’t ready to take such a bold step.

“So many really unfair things stoked our passions, and we felt we had to change them,” Weddington told reporter Pamela Colloff in an interview in 2003. “We realized that the only way to fix women’s issues was to elect women to the Legislative Assembly. No one else was going to do it, so we decided to do it ourselves.

In addition to being a lawyer, Weddington was a clerk at Texas House in 1965. She also had $ 100 in her checking account and was therefore able to pay the application fees to become a candidate. In addition, she had proper self-confidence, even though various guardians were still skeptical of women.

“I thought I could do better because a lot of those lawmakers in 1965 weren’t, as they say, the brightest light bulbs in the neighborhood,” Weddington told Colloff.

It was in this context that Weddington was approached about the affair that would become Roe.

Several like-minded women, including her law classmate Linda Coffee, have asked if she would be interested in helping challenge Texas’ abortion laws. At the time, Texas criminalized the procedure, except to save the life of a pregnant woman. Many other states had equally draconian restrictions.

Weddington was only 26 years old — 26 years old! -when she argued the case, in 1971. She had never tried a case before. But his limited experience did not prove to be an obstacle.

In 1973, the Supreme Court struck down several Texas laws, in a 7-2 decision that also ruled equally restrictive laws in other states unconstitutional: a landmark decision, and one that Weddington will long be remembered.

“Sarah was a warrior in the ongoing struggle for equal rights for women,” former President Jimmy Carter said in a statement.

In Texas, of course, Weddington’s death is a reminder of how things once were in this state – and how they still are, too often.

She was part of “this great matriarchy of Austin,” recalls another former student, lawyer Susan Hays, who is now running as Democratic Commissioner of Agriculture. Other members of this matriarchy included former Governor Ann Richards, journalist Molly Ivins and writer Liz Carpenter, who has tirelessly championed the women of Texas.

State Representative Jasmine Crockett, a Democrat from Dallas, forwarded a snapshot from 1973 sent to her by US Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, also a Democrat from Dallas, after learning of Weddington’s death. The photo shows Johnson, Weddington and Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican who would become the first woman to represent Texas in the United States Senate. The three were, at the time, “new” members of Texas House.

“That was half the women who were sworn in at Texas House that year,” said Crockett, who is now running to succeed Johnson, who is retiring at the end of his term as representative. of the 30th Congressional District of Texas.

Women are still under-represented in state government. Just think that these women – two Democrats, one Republican, all three talented and dedicated to public service – might never have been elected, if not for the misdeeds of men.

The 1972 Texas election is remembered in part for the change it brought to state government in the wake of the Sharpstown fraud scandal. With allegations that heads of state, including the governor, had done Houston banker Frank Sharp a favor, voters that year fired dozens of sitting state lawmakers, in most cases ousting conservative Democrats instead of moderate Democrats or Republicans.

There is a certain painful irony in the fact that Weddington passed away at a time when the reproductive rights she had fought for are again under attack, in Texas and elsewhere.

But she must have realized that progress is not easy and change can be clawed back. Perhaps that is why so many Texans remember his mentoring this week, as well as his professional accomplishments.

“It was very intentional,” said Diaz-Tello, recalling how Weddington encouraged his ambitions years ago. “She was building a generation of feminist leaders, and here we are.”

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