As the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor was once regarded as one of the most powerful women in the world. Her recent passing encourages not only the legal community, but the nation, to take a look at her life’s journey and the legacy she left behind.
Justice O’Connor, born in El Paso, Texas, lived most of her early life on a cattle ranch in Arizona. Her beginnings were provincial; her family home did not have running water or electricity until she was in 2nd grade. She attended Stanford University at the age of sixteen and received a BA in Economics before proceeding to Stanford Law alongside future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist where they both served on the Stanford Law Review. She often referred to herself as a “cowgirl” and prided herself on her upbringing. She graduated from law school in two years.
Though Justice O’Connor graduated near the top of her class, she was only able to obtain an administrative position -- with no salary -- at a law firm after graduation in 1952. Her first attorney position developed from there when she became a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California with a small salary, for a short time. The 1950’s legal environment for women mirrored that of the nation – a world where women’s roles were limited and where women were discouraged from pursuing positions of power, particularly in the political arena.
O’Connor’s journey toward becoming the first woman on the US Supreme Court began many years before 1981, and followed a winding road. After holding her first attorney job at a time when it was difficult to obtain such a position due to her gender, O’Connor accompanied her husband, who had been drafted into the Army, to Germany. There, she served as a civilian attorney with the United States Army Quartermaster Corps. Upon return, O’Connor headed for Arizona to build a family and she opened her own small, neighborhood law office in a shopping center. Stepping away from law as she raised her boys, Justice O’Connor became quite involved in local Republican Party politics.
Justice O’Connor filled a seat in the Arizona State Senate in 1969 via appointment and was then reelected to the position twice more. She achieved a significant milestone when she became the first woman in the United States to hold the post of majority leader in a state legislature. She fought for gender equality during this time, and in 1975 became a trial judge on the Maricopa County Superior Court, a position she held for four years. She was then appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals and in this role, Justice O’Connor became a major force in buttressing the role of women in the United States judicial system. In 1981, President Reagan fulfilled a campaign promise to appoint a woman to the US Supreme Court and nominated O’Connor. She was unanimously confirmed shortly thereafter, and made history for the nation in terms of advancing the role of women. In particular, she signified the formal entrance of women as powerful equals in the political and judicial realms.
Two notable opinions, one upholding Affirmative Action and the other where she defied expectations by issuing a joint opinion reaffirming Roe v. Wade, sided with the liberal part of the Court despite the fact that Justice O’Connor was a dedicated conservative Republican. She proved to have an instinct for the middle ground, however, which may have been born through either her personal upbringing in a modest and practical Southwest community, or her time as an elected Senator and Superior Court judge in the 1970s, or a combination of both.
Sandra Day O’Connor was a true product of the world in which she grew up: an Arizona Goldwater Republican who seemingly detested the very notion of a federal government interfering with the freedom that by the early 20th century had come to be seen as natural as the starry skies and wide-open western landscape that defined her world. But whereas Goldwater’s rigid definition of freedom never ceded an inch to the priorities of a welfare state, O’Connor’s humanity prevailed when the facts of real life clashed with the principles that had initially shaped her views and drawn her into law and politics in the first place.
As mentioned above, it was O’Connor who, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992) saved for women the fundamental right to an abortion (despite the fact that she personally did not believe in abortion), with her carefully crafted opinion that struck a balance acknowledging the state’s interest in protecting unborn fetuses while forbidding the imposition by the state of undue burdens to the exercise of that fundamental right. And it was her deft ability to lead the justices to find consensus that prevailed in Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003) which arguably saved affirmative action at institutions of higher learning, by finding that the United States Constitution "does not prohibit the law school's narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”
In the judicial world, O’Connor proved that one’s understanding of the Constitution can evolve over time, and the application of its principles need not be viewed through a single lens. She began her tenure on the Court as a Reagan-appointed Justice but left with a legacy that steered toward alignment with the American public as a whole.
In the years since Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the United States Supreme Court, the role of women has advanced considerably in the public sector in the United States. Five additional women have served on the Supreme Court, four of whom (out of nine total justices) are currently serving. Nancy Pelosi was the first woman to be elected Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2007, and in 2020, Kamala Harris was elected as the first female Vice President of the United States. While women remain in the minority on the Supreme Court and other national political bodies, Sandra Day O’Connor’s legacy has proven that women can be appointed or elected to such roles and can serve with distinction. As we continue to pursue true equity and equality, we must acknowledge and appreciate the path O’Connor has paved.