By: D.G. Martin
April 15, 2013
What about North Carolina’s “iron lady”?
The recent death of Margaret Thatcher, the steely, hard-working, and effective British prime minister, led to much discussion of her career, and we heard different opinions about her impact on the opening of opportunities for women in government and politics.
What an unusual lady! Charming when she needed to be, but tough as nails and mean as a snake. She showed women around the world that they could take the lead in a country that had never had a female prime minister and make it work well.
But, we have learned that she was not a vigorous advocate for the advancement of other women. She did not want to be viewed as a token at any stage of her career. Other women, she believed, should work to advance on their own merit and not be given special opportunities because of their gender.
North Carolina’s own iron lady had similar views, as explained by Anna Hayes in “Without Precedent,” her 2008 biography of North Carolina Chief Justice Susie Sharp.
When Sharp entered law school at Chapel Hill in 1926, she was the only woman in her class. When she began practicing law in 1929, women could not be judges or serve on juries. Nor was there much encouragement for her from the judge who administered her oath for admission to the bar. He lectured her, “Well, young lady, I congratulate you and all like that, but I’d be derelict in my duty if I didn’t tell you that you will never make a lawyer. If you persist, you will just be wasting your time, playing in the sand. I advise you to start right now trying to find something more appropriate to do.”
However, by 1949 her talent as a lawyer and her political connections led to appointment as a superior court judge, which required her to hold court in different parts of the state. At one courthouse she found that access to the judge’s chambers was only through the men’s restroom.
As a trial court judge, according to Hayes, Sharp offered a “sterling example of how a court should be run—knowledgeably, fairly, and efficiently—earning the respect of lawyers and litigants alike. She was a tireless crusader in her courtroom remarks and public speeches for the rule of law as the foundation of democracy, and for active, informed citizenship.”
Her service led to appointment to the state’s supreme court and election as its chief justice where Hayes said in an interview for the book’s publisher, UNC Press, “She was known as a legal scholar whose opinions were models of lucidity, and who undertook on occasion to bring about needed changes in the law…As a woman, of course, through her example she expanded opportunities for women in the legal profession and public life.”
Ironically, Hayes said, Sharp was an “obdurate opponent” of the Equal Rights Amendment in the battle for ratification in North Carolina that raged from 1970 to 1982 and “she exerted every effort she could to defeat the amendment. She based her opposition largely on the arguable idea that women were already protected under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and believed that the ERA would cause women to lose existing protections they had under the law. … North Carolina was considered a critical state whose approval could break the logjam and create momentum toward ratification. … Justice Sharp was undeniably influential in the ERA’s defeat in North Carolina, and to that extent, can be said to bear some credit or blame for its ultimate failure in the nation.”
Even those who disagree with Thatcher’s and Sharp’s positions on women’s issues or other important matters must be grateful for these iron ladies’ tenacious and successful battles that demonstrated powerfully how women can perform exceptionally well and lead at the very highest levels.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.