An attorney and jurist, Susie Sharp was born on July 7, 1907 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. She was the first child of James Merritt and Annie Sharp of Rockingham County. When Susie was in second grade, the family moved back to their original home county of Rockingham from Martinsville, Virginia. She graduated from Reidsville High School in 1924. By then, she had gained an appreciation of the law by working as a stenographer for her father, who was a lawyer.
After graduation, Miss Sharp attended the North Carolina College for Women in Greensboro for two years. She thereafter entered law school at the University of North Carolina, where she was the only woman in the class of 1929. She passed the state bar exam just before her third year of law school (1928). Soon after graduation, Sharp returned to Reidsville and entered her father’s law practice, which was renamed Sharp and Sharp, Attorneys-at-Law. While working for her father, she argued a case before the N.C. Supreme Court in 1929 and made headlines.
In 1939, at the age of thirty-two, Sharp started working as city attorney of Reidsville, making her the first female city attorney in the state. In 1948, she managed the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat W. Kerr Scott (1896-1958) in Rockingham County. In 1949, Scott appointed her as the first female judge to the North Carolina Superior Court.
In 1962, Governor Terry Sanford (1917-1998) appointed Sharp to the state Supreme Court—another first for a Tar Heel woman. She was thereafter elected as associate justice. Receiving an astounding seventy-four-percent of the vote in 1974, she became the first American female to be elected chief justice of a state Supreme Court. After taking the oath on January 2, 1975, she was asked if her new position would alarm traditionalists. She replied, “Well, I’ve been a curiosity all these years, so what difference will it make?”
Justice Sharp retired in 1979. In her seventeen years on the North Carolina Supreme Court, she authored 459 majority opinions, 124 concurring opinions, and 45 dissenting opinions.
Interestingly, Judge Sharp was an old school Southern Democrat. She rejected the “feminist” label and publicly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) of the early 1970s; she even attempted to persuade legislators to vote in the negative. Some have credited her, along with her friend Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr. (1896-1984), for playing a big part in defeating the ERA in North Carolina.
Although she held an enviable judicial position, Sharp no doubt disappointed women’s rights activists. Sharp once said: “The trouble comes when a woman tries to be too many things at one time: a wife, a mother, a career woman, a femme fatale… A woman has to draw up a blueprint. She has got to budget her life.” Judge Sharp never married.
Justice Sharp died on March 1, 1996. Reporters of the Greensboro Daily Record remembered the Chief Justice thusly: “She did not embrace the methods of the women’s movement. Nevertheless, her accomplishments and integrity inspired women across the country to look to her for guidance and counsel.”
Emily Colin and Lynn P. Roundtree, The Changing Face of Justice: A Look at the First 100 Women Attorneys in North Carolina (Raleigh, 2004); Richard Cooper, Susie Sharp: First Woman of Justice (Raleigh, 1985); Franklin Freeman, “Presentation Address of the Late Chief Justice Susie Sharp’s Portrait” http://www.aoc.state.nc.us/www/copyright/sc/portrait/sharp1.html (accessed March 15, 2006); Donald G. Mathews and Jane S. De Hart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA: A State and the Nation (New York, 1990); Jennifer Ravi, Notable North Carolina Women (Winston-Salem, 1992).