Carter and His New Feminist Aide, Sarah Weddington, Agree to Disagree on Abortion
Back in her native Texas, Sarah Weddington’s horseback riding often shows more splash than flash. “I ride bareback,” she explains in a honey drawl. “If there’s a creek that has the right bottom and is deep enough, I can ride the horse until he starts swimming. I just adore it.”
Next month the 33-year-old lawyer’s affinity for deep water will be tested anew. Chosen to replace Midge Co-stanza as Jimmy Carter’s chief adviser on women’s affairs, the tall (5’7½”) Texan will move into the White House basement and take up what she calls “the key position in the Administration where women are concerned.”
She seems tailor-made for the job. The eldest of three children, Sarah grew up in dusty west Texas where her father served as a Methodist minister. “My parents never had the feeling that because I was female there were limitations on what I could achieve,” she recalls. After graduating from McMurry College, she worked her way through the University of Texas Law School and by 1971 had opened her own office in Austin. Within two years she had drawn national attention by winning a landmark decision in the U.S. Supreme Court affirming women’s right to choose abortion. Three terms in the Texas House of Representatives followed. In 1977 she resigned to join the U.S. Department of Agriculture, becoming, at 32, the youngest-ever general counsel of a Cabinet department.
Although Sarah’s new assignment has pleased most feminists, her strong pro-abortion stand makes some Carter constituents edgy. She herself raised the issue during her talks with the President last month. “He feels the federal government should not fund abortions,” she admits. “That’s where we differ.” Whenever the subject comes up in the future, Carter told Weddington, she will be free to advocate her views within the Administration. “But,” she adds, “he said that if he made a different decision I had to abide by it. I accept that,” she adds. “I’d rather be in a position where at least I can argue from the inside.”
Few who have met her doubt that she will do so forcefully—from Jane McMichael, executive director of the National Women’s Political Caucus (“She’s teriffic—a very strong woman”), to presidential aide Hamilton Jordan. “We got along very well,” says Sarah of their first meeting. “Of course,” she adds with a smile, “in the Texas legislature I worked with a group of men whose backgrounds are very similar to those of the White House staff. I expect that will be very helpful to me here.”
Divorced in 1974 from her lawyer husband of seven years, she now shares a modest two-bedroom Washington bungalow with another woman, a speech professor. She admits her new job is “a little bit scary,” but her goals are clear. “I’m not in the least awed by what I’ve accomplished,” she insists. “What I’m really concerned about is that those opportunities be open to many other women too.”