Sandra Day O’Connor
First Female Supreme Court Associate Justice
Sandra Day O’Connor had a problem in the early 1950s. Even as a recent graduate from a prestigious law school, and even at a time when women were beginning to enter many new careers, she remained unemployed. Finally, she agreed to work for free for a local county agency, sharing an office with a secretary. Then eventually when her legal assistance proved valuable she began to draw a small salary. However, some years later she had no difficulty finding a position—as the first female associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sandra Day was born in El Paso, Texas in March, 1930, the daughter of a rancher and his wife. She grew up on a nearly 200,000 acre cattle ranch near Duncan, Arizona. In that remote area where the nearest paved road was several miles away, and in a home with no running water or electricity until 1937, Sandra grew up equipped with the necessary skills. She early became adept with a .22 caliber rifle shooting jackrabbits, and also began driving a car before she could even see over the dashboard.
To get the best education possible, her parents sent her to El Paso to live with her grandmother and to attend a special girls’ school. Several years later she returned to the ranch, riding a bus to El Paso where she graduated from high school in 1946 then enrolled in Stanford University in California. After graduating in 1950, she then began to attend the Stanford Law School, where a fellow student was future Chief Justice William Renquist (whom she dated for a time). A more serious romance was with John Jay O’Connor III, who was a year behind her in school. and they were married in December, 1952.
Because she could not find a legal position after graduation, she agreed to work free as a San Mateo, California as a deputy county attorney. Then when her husband was drafted, she accompanied him to Europe. where she worked as a civilian lawyer with the Army’s Quartermaster Corps. After his term of duty ended they returned to settle in Maricopa County, Arizona and over the next few years their family grew with the birth of three sons.
As she raised her family, Mrs. O’Connor was active in local politics. She served on the presidential campaign in 1964 for Republican Senator Barry Goldberg.
Mrs. O’Connor served from 1965-1969, as Assistant Attorney General for Arizona, and in 1969 the governor appointed her to fill a vacant position in the state Senate. In 1970 she was elected to the position and served two full terms. In 1974 she was elected to the county court, and after serving several years was appointed to the state Court of Appeals, where she served for several years. However, by 1981 her life was to change.
During his 1981 campaign for president, Ronald Reagan had stated that if possible he would appoint a woman to the Supreme Court. After he was elected, his opportunity came, and he appointed Judge O’Connor. She heard about the nomination the day before it was made—and it was certainly a surprise since she didn’t know she was under consideration.
In September, 1981 as Judge O’Connor faced the Senate Judiciary Committee—incidentally the first televised hearing for a Supreme Court justice—she already knew her appointment was controversial, particularly on the issue of abortion. However, she remained non-committal on the issue, and was confirmed unanimously. Later the entire Senate confirmed her appointment 99-0—the missing vote was from a Senator who was out of town—who sent a gift in apology for his missing vote.
One of Justice O’Connor’s first challenges, as first female justice, was how there seemed to be no ladies’ restroom near the courtrooms. Also, she reminded one editor who had described “the nine men” on the court that the body now included the FWOTSC (a term she created—First Woman on the Supreme Court).
According to one report (in her work on the Court), Justice O’Connor was not always predictable, and made her decisions on a case by case basis. According to one source, she preferred to focus on the letter of the law, and to follow what she saw as the real meaning of the U.S. Constitution.
During her time on the bench, Justice O’Connor’s husband, John, had worked with Washington and Phoenix area law firms. Then after several years, as he began to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, his wife worked to increase public knowledge of the condition.
Then to spend more time with him at this time, Justice O’Connor decided to retire in 2006, and they returned to live in Phoenix. He died there in 2009. However, she remained active, serving on the federal appeals court and writing several books. Among these were a judicial memoir and two children’s books.
However, over the next few years her own health began to fail and by 2017 she had become so frail that she moved to a retirement community. The next year she announced that she too had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and was retiring from public life.
In her words: “As this condition has progressed, I am no longer able to participate in public life. Since many people have asked about my current status and activities I want to be open about these changes, and while I am still able, share some personal thoughts.”
Justice O’Connor was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 from President Barack Obama and today resides in Phoenix.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.