Why her? Why then? How did Susie Sharp become a legal icon at a time when women were all but nonexistent in the legal profession? These were the questions that gave birth to this book. Susie Marshall Sharp was not the first or only woman of formidable intelligence in North Carolina or elsewhere. Nor was she the first woman to aspire to a career in the law. And yet, indisputably, the number of women then at the pinnacle of public life, and particularly in the legal profession, was minuscule. She was the first in a number of significant ways, including first woman judge in North Carolina, first woman on the North Carolina Supreme Court, and first woman in the United States to be elected chief justice of a state supreme court. I wanted to find out how she had transcended the limits society placed on women in her time.
This is not, however, the book I expected to write.
My primary interest was in the historical facts—the events leading to her unprecedented status in the North Carolina judicial and political scene—as well as the use she made of her position to affect the lives of her fellow citizens. In this sense, the book is at least as much about North Carolina during this time as it is about Susie Sharp. Her activities as an attorney, judge, and politician must be understood in the context of the social mores, the legal profession, and the political battles of her era. Subjects such as women's education, legal education, and women's roles in public life bear directly on her life and career. To a great extent, of course, Susie Sharp's family background, private life, and personality closely relate to her career path and are inextricable from the story I wanted to tell. Here, I discovered a woman far different from the one I had imagined.
Susie Sharp was successful, spectacularly so, and gave every appearance of being an exceptionally well-integrated person. Her public image was that of a brilliant, personable, strict-minded woman who had sacrificed marriage and family to pursue her career. All this was true. But just as the era in which she rose to such a startling prominence was at once deceptively simple on the surface yet enormously complex underneath, she was a woman far more complicated than she appeared. How I came to discover the many paradoxes in her life is a story in itself.