Books · Politics

Sandra Day O’Connor—First Woman
on the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of the United States was an exclusively male preserve for 192 years. Not until 1981, when President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to be the first woman justice, did the Court gain the benefit of a woman’s perspective and expertise.

“In the fall of 1983, in an article poking fun at government acronyms, The New York Times wrote, ‘The chief magistrate responsible for executing the laws is sometimes known as the POTUS (President of the United States). The nine men who interpret them are often the SCOTUS.’ O’Connor wrote to the Times, reminding them that for two years ‘SCOTUS has not consisted of nine men.’ She signed the letter FWOTSC— ‘First woman on the Supreme Court.’” (Thomas pg. 203)

First: Sandra Day O’Connor is an intimate and compelling biography by Evan Thomas. He celebrates O’Connor’s achievements and traces her unlikely trajectory from a dusty ranch in the Arizona desert to the Supreme Court—the pinnacle of the legal profession. As the first woman on SCOTUS, she opened the door for women like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton to reach places previously reserved for men only.

O’Connor was born in a remote farmhouse that had no indoor plumbing, running water, and electricity. She was firing rifles and branding calves before she was ten years old. When she was six, her parents sent her to El Paso for the school year because the nearest schools were an hour away and not great. Homesick and lonely, she felt like an outsider. She missed her parents, the horses and wild animals, and her playmates at the ranch.

Having skipped two grades, O’Connor was sixteen when she entered college. Smart and studious, she finished college and law school at Stanford in six years, ranking third in her class. Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist was in the same class, graduating one or two places ahead of her. After Stanford, Rehnquist took a clerkship at the Supreme Court. O’Connor, on the other hand, was overlooked or turned down by almost every law firm in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Her friend’s father, a partner at a top Los Angeles firm, told her they had never hired a woman lawyer. “But if you type well enough, we might be able to get you a job as a legal secretary.” (Thomas, pg. 43) That was 1952.

O’Connor didn’t know that professional women historically had faced more opposition from the bar than in any other field. The law is at the center of power; men, therefore, had a vested interest in excluding women from their ranks. Thomas writes in the book of the impact of this on O’Connor, “It just came as a real shock, because I had done well in law school, and it never entered my mind that I couldn’t get an interview.” (Thomas, pg. 44) That experience undoubtedly influenced her decisions at the Supreme Court to expand and protect the rights of women.

In 1952, Sandra Day married John O’Connor and soon became pregnant. Determined to practice law, she set up shop in a mall and took whatever case walked in. She had grit. On the ranch she had learned that life, like the desert, could be unforgiving, and that hard work did not always produce the desired result.

When she was pregnant again, her babysitter quit and so did she. O’Connor spent the next five years at home, raising three boys, doing volunteer work and expanding the couple’s social circle with politicians and influencers. She worked on Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the U.S. Senate.

In 1964, there were still no jobs for women in desirable Phoenix law firms, and O’Connor began working local politics. These contacts were useful when in 1969 she was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Arizona state senate.

1972 was an important year: O’Connor was elected majority leader, the first woman in any state. Congress submitted the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the states for ratification, and President Richard Nixon nominated Rehnquist for the Supreme Court. O’Connor swung into action, calling on her connections to lobby for her friend’s confirmation.

O’Connor initially didn’t support the ERA. She believed that a few victories in federal courts would suffice to establish the equality of women. But as the U.S. Senate passed it with overwhelming bipartisan support, she saw the way the wind was blowing and immediately proposed ratification in the Arizona senate. The Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, however, was in no hurry, and she relented. The decision to delay ratification was fatal. Her friend and counselor, Barry Goldwater, by then Republican Senator from Arizona, had voted against it and advised her to do so as well.

Some suspect it was O’Connor’s political ambition that kept her from crossing a powerful senator and temporarily cooled her desire to advance the cause of women’s rights. In First: Sandra Day O’Connor, Thomas succinctly credits her “shrewd political skills.” Always practical and cautious, O’Connor knew how to count votes and realized the rapidly growing Christian right would likely defeat the ERA in Arizona. She calculated that defying Goldwater was not worth the probable political cost. Nine years later, she was proven right. Goldwater was one of the strongest supporters of her nomination to the Supreme Court.

With no knowledge of constitutional law and no experience on the federal bench, O’Connor’s nomination to the Supreme Court would have been extremely unlikely without the support of her influential Republican friends, including Goldwater and especially Rehnquist. Years before, O’Connor had declined Rehnquist’s proposal of marriage, but the two remained close. She benefited from her and her husband’s wide social network, and it didn’t hurt that Reagan believed appointing a woman to the Court would be politically advantageous.

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