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Elizabeth Edwards: A feminist, a thinker


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I mainly knew her in law school. I was a year ahead of her. My class was the first year there were significant numbers of female students at UNC Law School. We knew each other through Women in Law. It was a support group for women who were in law school.

One of our purposes was to promote the rights of women under the law, and Elizabeth was involved in this. We created a handbook of laws in North Carolina that affected women, including family law issues and name change. There were a lot of pretty archaic laws on the books back then that discriminated against women. We tried to describe what those were and what changes we thought needed to be made.

Elizabeth had a very strong, engaging personality. She was one of those people who sparkled. When I would see her on TV, she had that same kind of engaged personality. Her eyes sort of jumped out at you. She stood out.

She was a feminist, there's no question about that. She would describe herself as a feminist. One of the things that was interesting to me was that she did keep her birth name, Anania, until John Edwards ran for U.S. Senate.

She certainly was an intellectual standout. She was a very clear thinker. I remember her, for example, working on the handbook [created by the Women in Law student group]. I remember thinking, "My goodness, that woman's going to go somewhere."

Now that I'm reading so many of the comments that people are making, I'm just seeing what a mother she was. That really spoke to me over the years—that she put her kids first, really. That's what's so sad about this to me.

I was a Facebook friend, so I got the Facebook message she had put up. I listened to the reports, and the very next day, she had died. What a loss. I also felt concern for her children, all three of them. You know, losing a parent and losing someone as involved with you as Elizabeth was involved with her kids ... And losing someone at Christmas—it was such an important time to her and her family. I just really feel for the family.

Even though I hadn't stayed close to her, it really surprised me just how sad I've felt with her having gone through so much over the years, and how she faced those things with such class. It's hard to even talk about it.

I never talked to her about this, so I don't know. But I think she stood by her husband for the kids. She wanted that family to stay together desperately. I kind of see those decisions she made through the years. I wonder if she might have made some different decisions if she hadn't been sick.

I think the definition of feminism doesn't have to mean that you continue your career and disregard issues that might come up on the family side. One thing that the feminist movement has allowed us to do is to make decisions that are best for ourselves and our families. Sometimes that means going the big law firm partner route, and sometimes it doesn't. She was a feminist in the beginning, and to the end.

Carolyn McAllaster, a clinical professor of law at Duke University, attended UNC-Chapel Hill law school with Edwards from 1974–76.


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