Sandra Day O’Connor (1930–)

The year was 1981. Ronald Reagan had recently been elected president. He had made a campaign promise to name the first woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, and when Justice Potter Stewart announced that he was going to retire, Ronald Reagan was determined to make good on his promise. He settled quickly on Sandra Day O’Connor.

The woman Reagan chose to make history did not seem like Supreme Court material at first. She had served as a state court judge but never on a federal bench. Although she was very smart and generally acknowledged to be a good judge, she was not considered a legal scholar.

Yet, she was a good choice for the Republican Ronald Reagan. In addition to being a woman, O’Connor was a staunch Republican and had long been involved in Republican politics in her home state of Arizona. She had worked on Barry Goldwater’s campaign, the Republican candidate for president in 1964 who lost to Lyndon B. Johnson. She also campaigned on her own initiative for William Rehnquist’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. She had served as a Republican senator in the Arizona state senate, having been appointed to fill a vacancy in 1969. O’Connor was also liked and respected by Arizona Republicans. In 1972, the year O’Connor became state senate majority leader, the political editor of the Arizona Republic wrote: “Sandy, as she is known around the Capitol, is a sharp gal. She is articulate, has a steel trap mind, boundless energy, and a large measure of common sense.” By the time, Reagan nominated her for the Supreme Court, O’Connor had already racked up a number of other firsts in her home state—she had been the first woman to serve on the board of directors of the First National Bank of Arizona and the state’s first female senate majority leader.

O’Connor’s nomination appealed not only to Republicans but also to those who saw themselves in her. Like them, O’Connor tried to combine career and caring for her family and again like many women had suffered discrimination in the workplace because of her gender. In 1952, O’Connor had graduated from Stanford University Law School in the top 10% of her class. Yet when she applied to the prestigious law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher for a job as a lawyer, the firm saw fit to offer her a job only as a legal secretary. O’Connor never forgot it. When Attorney General William French Smith who had worked at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher called to tell her that she was being considered for a federal position, she told him that it must be a secretarial position.

Sandra Day OConnor was the first woman appointed to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and became one of the most influential justices.

Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman appointed to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and became one of the most influential justices. (Supreme Court)

No doubt because of her experience, O’Connor was an ardent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. As an Arizona state legislator she urged its passage. She continued to champion women’s rights on and off the bench. “Women must show their public faces,” she wrote in her book The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice. “We must insist on having equal voices and equal responsibilities. The treatment of women in a society is a critical measure of that civilization.”

O’Connor’s nomination was also popular with the general public despite some opposition from those who still thought women did not belong in the public sphere. One of the letters O’Connor received right after nomination read, “Back to your kitchen and home female! This is a job for a man and only he can make the rough decisions. Take care of your grandchildren and husband.” Nevertheless, the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed her appointment.

O’Connor was very much aware of the history she was making by being the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In an interview with a national magazine, she said that “the important fact about my appointment is not that I will decide cases as a woman but that I am a woman who will get to decide cases.”

The only group whose opposition to her nomination might have been taken seriously was antiabortion activists. Reagan had not only promised to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court, he had also promised to appoint a justice who was opposed to a woman’s right to abortion and who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision of 1973 that found that women had a constitutional right to abortion. Roe v. Wade was and still is an extremely controversial decision, and it seemed like the country had become divided into two camps—those who called themselves pro-life and were essentially opposed to abortion rights, and those who called themselves pro-choice who believed that a woman had the right to choose whether to have an abortion. Although O’Connor had stated during her confirmation hearings that she found abortion morally repugnant, pro-life activists were concerned. O’Connor had opposed broad antiabortion measures introduced in the Arizona state legislature after Roe v. Wade had been decided. (She did, however, back restricting Arizona state funding of abortions and legislation giving Arizona health care workers the right to participate in an abortion.) They need not have worried, at least not at first. O’Connor voted to uphold restrictions on access to abortion in one of her first cases on the bench and several thereafter. Yet in 1989 when the Supreme Court was asked to essentially overturn Roe v. Wade in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, she cast the deciding vote to uphold Roe v. Wade and retain a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion.

O’Connor took a conservative stand on many issues, including First Amendment rights, minority rights, and electoral cases and often sided with the conservative justices on the Court. Like most conservatives, she believed in a strict and narrow rather than a broad interpretation of the Constitution. But O’Connor was essentially a centrist and pragmatist, believing in compromise when necessary as her decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services indicates. As a result, neither liberals nor conservatives were entirely happy with her. Liberals believed that she had a political agenda and was influenced in her decisions by her religious views. Feminists thought that she was not a sufficient advocate for women. On the other hand, since she did not take an ideological approach but tended to judge the cases before her based on what she thought the Constitution, not politicians, intended, conservatives saw her as not conservative enough. When the eight other justices on the Supreme Court split into liberals and conservatives, O’Connor became the “swing vote” in many cases, at times giving liberal judges the five-vote majority they needed to prevail, at times the conservative justices. Lawyers appearing before the Court in controversial cases knew they had to pitch their arguments to her. Many called her “the most influential woman in America.” Not bad for a woman who could barely find a job after law school.

Sandra Day O’Connor was born in El Paso, Texas, on March 26, 1930, to Ada Mae and Harry Day. Her parents owned the Lazy B Ranch in Arizona where O’Connor grew up. She graduated from Stanford University in 1950 at the age of 19 and then from Stanford University Law School with an LLB in 1952.

While in college she majored in economics and studied with Harry Rathbun, one of O’Connor’s most important intellectual and philosophical influences. She called him “the most inspiring teacher I had ever had.” Rathbun spoke of the importance of community and that individuals could make a difference. He also believed that “the law is the expression of the rules of the game which all men play—that of getting along together as members of an organized society.” His teaching inspired O’Connor to examine the meaning and purpose of her life and ultimately influenced her decision to apply to law school.

O’Connor had met her husband John J. O’Connor III, the son of a San Francisco physician, in law school while they were both working on an assignment for the Stanford Law Review. “Beware of proofreading over a glass of beer.... It can result in unexpected alliances.” After graduation, she could not get a job with a private law firm as an attorney and finally found work as a deputy county attorney in the San Mateo County Attorney’s office near Stanford University. When her husband graduated in 1953, he joined the military branch of the U.S. Army, the JAG Corps. She accompanied him to Frankfurt, Germany, where she worked as an attorney for the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps. The couple eventually decided to settle in Phoenix, Arizona. Phoenix was just beginning to grow into a major urban center, and they thought they would find more opportunities there. They were both sworn into the Arizona state bar on the same day, October 7, 1957. O’Connor’s first child, Scott, was born three days later.

O’Connor did not have better luck finding a job as an attorney in 1957 Phoenix than she had had in 1952 California. So she set up her own firm with a partner named Tom Tobin. As a new, small firm, they could not afford to be choosy and took just abut any kind of case that came their way—property, commercial, divorce, even some criminal cases. This experience gave O’Connor insight into the kinds of legal problems that ordinary people faced. She also began to get involved in politics, campaigning for Republican candidates and earning appointments to county boards and panels.

When her second son Brian was born, O’Connor realized that she could not be a full-time mother and a lawyer with a full-time practice at the same time. She quit the firm to stay home, or so she said. O’Connor’s idea of being a stay-at-home meant writing wills for clients and serving as a trustee for federal bankruptcy court, work she could do from home. More important for O’Connor’s future, it meant getting involved in a variety of political activities, including fund-raising and campaigning for local Republican candidates. She was a precinct committeewoman and then county vice chair for the Republican Party. In 1962, her third son Jay was born, and in 1965, O’Connor returned to work as an assistant state attorney general.

At first, O’Connor worked full-time, and then, after proving herself indispensable to the attorney general’s office, negotiated more flexible hours so she could be home more to look after her family. O’Connor behaved outwardly as if she could have it all—work and family. She was reluctant to say whether she found it difficult and to specify any sacrifices she might have made. As the keynote speaker at a conference of women judges in 1982, she stated that women should always put their families first. In later years, O’Connor did admit that “the ultimate happiness to me is the feeling of fulfillment which comes from doing constructive work for the good of society and mankind” and that “it helps to marry someone with the understanding and expectation that the wife intends to pursue her career.”

O’Connor’s political activities had put her in good stead with local power brokers, and when Reagan appointed Arizona state senator Isabel Burgess to the National Transportation Safety Board O’Connor was appointed to fill Burgess’s vacant seat. When the term was up, she ran on her account and won. O’Connor’s political philosophy was very much like her judicial one. She tended to lean to the right but was not doctrinaire. Instead, she sought consensus and got along well with both Democrats and Republicans. To be taken seriously in the still largely male bastion of Arizona politics, O’Connor had to be seen as feminine but not too feminine. While she had to be firm in her views, she could not be too aggressive or intimidating. She could also not be “one of the boys.”

After serving as a state senator for five years, she ran for state court trial judge in 1974 and was appointed to the state Court of Appeals in 1979.

In 1988, O’Connor was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy. As soon as she recovered from the surgery, she was back at the Supreme Court working, deciding cases, writing. Some court watchers noticed a shift in her decisions at that time away from a strict conservative stand to a more flexible one, most notably her decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services not to overturn Roe v. Wade. Others detected less of a change in O’Connor and more of a rightward shift on the part of the Court.

O’Connor announced her retirement on July 2005 pending the Senate’s appointment of a replacement for her seat. Her husband John who had supported all her political and judicial endeavors had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. O’Connor wanted to spend more time with him while she still could. John passed away on November 11, 2009.

O’Connor may have retired from the Supreme Court, but she is still influential, going around the country giving lectures and speeches. She is the also author of two books, her childhood memoir Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest and The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice.

—Rivka Widerman


Biskupic, Joan. Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

O’Connor, Sandra Day. The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice. New York: Random House, 2003.

O’Connor, Sandra Day and Alan Day. Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest. New York: Random House, 2002.

“Sandra Day O’Connor.”