I don't know what you were or are doing at age 26, but your to-do list likely didn't include arguing landmark cases before the Supreme Court of the United States. Yet it was at that age that attorney Sarah Weddington delivered the successful argument in Roe v. Wade, the case that legalized abortion in the United States. Her focus was to describe the ways that the law forbidding abortions in her home state of Texas turned women into victims, rather than protecting them.
Weddington, who'd had an abortion herself in 1967, joined a group of University of Texas graduate students looking for a case to challenge the anti-abortion law after her own graduation from law school--doing so, in part, because she found it difficult to find work at a law firm, a common issue for women attorneys in that era. She argued the case before a district court, and that ruling was appealed by the state, which put the case before the U.S. Supreme Court and its all-male roster of justices.
She argued the case in two sessions, one in 1971 and another in 1972. In an interview almost 30 years later, Weddington recalled the day she made the argument at the court. Just as any speaker might, she talks about the moments before she began to speak--except that this high-stakes setting had unusual pressure behind it:
I'll never forget the morning of oral arguments. I got up really early and headed over to put the last touches on my argument. There was a sense of majesty, walking up those stairs, my steps echoing on the marble. I went to the lawyers' lounge — to go over my argument. I wanted to make a last stop before I went in — but there was no ladies' room in the lawyer's lounge. I think they just put one in a few years ago. When you get to your seat in this beautiful courtroom, there is a handmade goose quill pen waiting for you at your seat. Then the clerk comes out and announces the Justices, who come in through a velvet curtain. The courtroom was packed; the pressroom was packed. Every seat was filled.Today, we debate and wonder about work-life balance, but in 1972, women had starker choices and fewer rights. Part of Weddington's strategy was to enumerate those limits on women early in her argument:
For example, in our State there are many schools where a woman is forced to quit if she becomes pregnant.
In the City of Austin that is true.
A woman, if she becomes pregnant, and is in high school, must drop out of regular education process.
And that's true of some colleges in our State.
In the matter of employment, she often is forced to quit at an early point in her pregnancy.She has no provision for maternity leave.
She cannot get unemployment compensation under our laws, because the laws hold that she is not eligible for employment, being pregnant, and therefore is eligible for no unemployment compensation.
At the same time, she can get no welfare to help her at a time but she has no unemployment compensation and she's not eligible for any help in getting a job to provide for herself.
There is no duty for employers to rehire women if they must drop out to carry a pregnancy to term.
And, of course, this is especially hard on the many women in Texas who are heads of their own households and must provide for their already existing children.
And, obviously, the responsibility of raising a child is a most serious one, and at times an emotional investment that must be made, cannot be denied.
So, a pregnancy to a woman is perhaps one of the most determinative aspects of her life.
It disrupts her body.
It disrupts her education.
It disrupts her employment.
And it often disrupts her entire family life.The Supreme Court's decision was a groundbreaking one for American women, and it has been argued about and protested ever since. Our focus here is on public speaking, so let's consider what you can learn from this famous speech, whether you agree with the outcome or have a different view:
- Big ideas don't need big words: It would be difficult to name another issue with the same level of controversy swirling around it in America, then and now. Rather than aim for flowery or complex arguments, Weddington uses the simplest of words to describe the law's impact on the women of Texas, even when she is describing medical procedures. Making your case persuasive doesn't require multi-syllabic words, lots of adjectives or other complicated constructions.
- Before power brokers, be direct: Of course, attorneys before the highest court in the United States follow a protocol, but this argument benefits from its direct approach to laying the case before the justices for consideration. For one thing, it didn't waste the justice's time with unnecessary flourishes. Good research helped here, but so did the structure Weddington followed, just as simple as her choice of words.
- Use rhetorical devices for effect: The sentences quoted above that begin with "It disrupts her..." are the rhetorical device called anaphora, a repetition that comes at the beginning of a series of sentences. It's commonly used for emphasis and intensity, and the repetitive phrase not only is an audible clue to the listener that there's a pattern to follow, but that each of the words that differs is important. Here, that would mean body, education, employment and family life are emphasized. Taking the time to use rhetorical devices can add power and pacing to your speeches.
- Don't underestimate your ability based on your age: That applies whether you are young or old, or thought to be too young or too old to tackle a big speaking task. Weddington went on to become a state legislator, a law professor, founder of leadership institute, and the holder of many honorary degrees. But when she made this landmark argument, she was an unemployed 26-year-old law school graduate. Do I make my case?