Linda Coffee, The Dallas Attorney Who Took Roe v. Wade to the U.S. Supreme Court

by Paula Bosse

coffee-linda_WFAA_SMU_june-1970Linda Coffee, 27 years old, on her way to the Supreme Court to make history

by Paula Bosse

The most important woman in the abortion rights fight is someone you’ve never heard of: LINDA COFFEE, the Dallas attorney who took the local case of Roe v. Wade from Dallas all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in a successful battle to have the ban on abortion in Texas declared unconstitutional. She began the case when she was only 26 years old and less than two years out of UT Law School.

Coffee was the driving force of this landmark legal case from the very beginning but preferred to leave the limelight to her co-counsel, Sarah Weddington, who joined the team a short time after the case was underway. (Weddington, an Austin lawyer, was *also* only in her 20s!)

The image above is a screenshot of a 1970 television interview with Coffee in news footage from the WFAA archive, a treasure trove of historical film clips housed at SMU as part of the Hamon Arts Library’s G. William Jones Film & Video Collection (the WFAA archive is viewable on YouTube here, with additions being made all the time).

This rare, recently unearthed Channel 8 interview from June, 1970 has Coffee discussing the ramifications of her first win in the long legal journey which would ultimately end in victory in the U.S. Supreme Court. It is almost certainly her first TV interview. (Read the notes of the YouTube clip for the full description.)

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My mother was involved in all sorts of women’s political groups in Dallas in the 1970s (and beyond). Meetings of various progressive political organizations and committees were often held at the First Unitarian Church on Preston Road in University Park (yes, University Park was an unlikely hotbed of activism!), and my mother knew Linda Coffee through these women’s groups. I had heard Linda’s name over the years but didn’t really know much about her until I came across this short Channel 8 interview. I’ve been working in these archives for SMU and wasn’t able to identify this unidentified woman but felt sure my mother would know who she was. I was talking to my mother on the phone trying to describe her: “I’m not sure who she is. She appears to be a lawyer, but she just looks too young and too… disheveled to be a lawyer. A little scroungy.” “Oh!” my mother said instantly, “Linda Coffee.” And she was right! She hadn’t even seen the footage.

I immediately loved Linda from my introduction to her in this footage. She’s earnest, confident, smart, pixie-ish, and she looks a little like a “real-person” version of Linda Ronstadt. I wonder if she ever imagined she would be responsible for one of the most famous legal cases of the 20th century?

I decided to look into her background in Dallas, and I was pretty surprised to see that she grew up one street over from where I grew up (she lived in the 5700  block of Anita) and went to my East Dallas alma mater, Woodrow Wilson High School (she and musician Steve Miller were there at the same time, Class of 1961 — she was in the band, he was on the football team — wonder if they ever met?).

linda_1961_band-detLinda Coffee, Woodrow band, 1961

miller-steve_WWHS_1961_srSteve Miller, senior photo, 1961

While we’re at it, here a few more photos of Linda Coffee in high school.

coffee_1959_high-school_WWHS-1959-yrbk_p92_sophLinda Coffee, Woodrow sophomore, 1959

coffee_1960_high-school_WWHS-1960-yrbk_p85_jrLinda Coffee, Woodrow junior, 1960

coffee_1960_high-school_latin-club_WWHS-1960-yrbk_jrLinda (dark robe) with the Latin club, attending “Ben Hur” screening downtown, 1960

coffee_1961_high-school_science-club_WWHS-1961-yrbk_srLinda and other officers of the Woodrow Science Club, 1961

coffee_1961_high-school_new-zealand_WWHS-1961-yrbk_p268-det_srLinda pointing to New Zealand, 1961

coffee_1961_high-school_sr-photo-bio_WWHS-1961-yrbk_p57_srLinda Coffee, Woodrow Wilson High School, senior photo, 1961

She apparently excelled at everything and had a wide range of interests.

After graduating from Woodrow, she went to RIce University where she majored in German, then went on to law school at the University of Texas where she passed the Texas bar exam with the second highest score in the class. After becoming a lawyer, she was a law clerk in Dallas for District Judge Sarah T. Hughes (she and another female clerk were profiled in a 1968 Dallas Morning News article which carried the unfortunate headline, “The Law Clerks Are Girls”). It wasn’t long after this that she began working on a case to challenge the constitutionality of a vague Texas law which banned abortions. In January, 1973, Linda Coffee and co-counsel Sarah Weddington won their case in the U.S. Supreme Court. Linda had just turned 30.

linda-coffee_getty-images
Linda Coffee, 1972, via Getty Images

weddington-sarah_1972Sarah Weddington, 1972, via Glamour magazine

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I would highly recommend (and I mean HIGHLY RECOMMEND) the Vanity Fair profile of Linda Coffee written by Joshua Prager titled “Roe v. Wade’s Secret Heroine Tells Her Story.” Reading this when I knew virtually nothing about Linda made me want to know more about her and made me want to share her story with as many people as possible. How is it that this lawyer who has had such a massively important impact on modern life (especially women’s lives) isn’t a household name? Prager’s article tells you why. Joshua Prager has expanded this article to a full book concerning the Roe case which will be published in a couple of weeks: The Family Roe, An American Story. With the current news of the newly implemented controversial legislation by the State of Texas, this book could not possibly be more timely.

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Thank you, Linda. Thank you, Sarah.

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Sources & Notes

Top image is a screenshot of a June, 1970 interview of Linda Coffee conducted by Channel 8 reporter Phil Reynolds; this interview can be seen on YouTube here (from the WFAA archive, G. William Jones Film & Video Collection, Hamon Arts Library, Southern Methodist University). 

All high school-era photos of Linda Coffee are from various editions of The Crusader, the yearbook of Woodrow Wilson High School.

coffee-linda_WFAA_SMU_june-1970_sm

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Copyright © 2021 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.