Sandra Day was born in El Paso, Texas in 1930 and spent her earliest years living on a cattle ranch on the Arizona-New Mexico border. Starting at age eight, she spent the school months with her grandmother in El Paso, but her childhood was very much defined by her time on the ranch where, she’s said, she’d “get up at 3 a.m. and be in the saddle by sunup.” Living 35 miles from the nearest town taught her the importance of both self-reliance and taking care of one’s neighbors. She also inherited a formidable work ethic from her parents and gained an interest in conflict resolution from her knowledge of Indian tribal councils. Growing up in a rural area may have also protected her from the weight of contemporary assumptions about what girls and women could do.
After graduating from high school at age 16, O’Connor attended Stanford University and went on to become the first woman to attend Stanford Law School, where she finished third in her class (the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist was first). Of that time, O’Connor states, it “simply wasn’t in my mind that I couldn’t make it into law school.” Making it into law school was one thing; getting a job as a lawyer turned out to be another one entirely. Despite her lofty credentials, no fewer than 40 law firms refused to interview her because she was a woman. She eventually received an interview at one firm – for a secretarial position. (In a delicious ironic twist, the man who offered her that secretarial position was the very same one whom Ronald Reagan tapped to call to offer her a position on the Supreme Court. Ha!) She finally found a job as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, but the only way she could get hired was to work for free. O’Connor was shocked: “I think I was naive. I had never stopped to think that it might be hard to get a job.”
In 1953, an opportunity for her new husband, John O’Connor, brought one for her as well. After his own graduation from Stanford Law, the couple moved to Germany, where he had been posted as a lawyer for the U.S. Army. Meanwhile, Sandra found a position as a lawyer for the Quartermaster Corps, which provided food and supplies for the army. After three years working and traveling in Europe, the couple returned to Arizona where they welcomed their first son, Scott, in 1957. Sandra immediately tried to figure out how to combine motherhood with her career. Given that she’d had such a hard time finding a job with a firm, she decided to open one of her own with a friend, working in the mornings as a court-appointed attorney for impoverished clients and taking care of Scott in the afternoons. Over the next few years, Sandra built her client base and her family; sons Brian and Jay arrived in 1960 and 1962. At that point, she decided to take a break from the law and spent the next few years as a stay-at-home mother, all the while volunteering for the Arizona Republican Party.
After her hiatus from paid work, she took a job in the Arizona Attorney General’s office in 1965, starting part-time and building up her hours as her boys got older and spent more time in school. Soon she was appointed by the Republican Party to a vacancy in the State Senate, a position for which she was reelected in 1973. Smashing yet another glass ceiling, O’Connor became the first woman to serve as Majority Leader of the Arizona State Senate. From there she was elected a county judge and then became part of the Arizona State Court of Appeals until 1981 when she was appointed to the Supreme Court.
O’Connor was nominated for the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan, who had made a campaign pledge to appoint the first woman to the Court. From the outset, O’Connor’s nomination was challenged by religious and anti-abortion groups who wanted a justice who would be willing to overturn Roe v. Wade. Despite these protests, O’Connor was confirmed by the Senate, 99-0. As a justice, she favored a narrow approach to each case and tended to vote with the conservative bloc of the Court, but as the court itself became more conservative, she was more often a “swing voter” (a term she loathes). As for the abortion question, O’Connor voted in favor of precedents that would limit access to abortion, but supported the idea that the right to choose is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, writing in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.”
O’Connor retired from the court in January 2006 in order to help care for John, who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. She has spent her retirement tending to John (who passed away in 2009), remaining engaged with the law both as a substitute judge and legal scholar, and developing iCivics, interactive civics lessons for students and teachers.
There are now three women on the Supreme Court – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Of the three, only Ginsburg is a mother. This fact has drawn a lot of attention, especially as part of the never-ending “Can women have it all?” debate. Writing about the issue before Kagan’s confirmation, Lisa Belkin noted the generational difference between O’Connor and Ginsburg on the one hand and Sotomayor and Kagan on the other: “Not much was given to or expected of women [when O'Connor and Ginsburg were young], which created a paradoxical freedom…as women’s paths ascended, they also narrowed…There would be no taking five years off to stay home with your children if you hoped for a seat on the Supreme Court.” Belkin goes on to call the Kagan nomination a “realistic – and cautionary” message to mothers trying to reach lofty career goals.
As slowly as “quiet feminist” Sandra Day O’Connor’s climb began, she did indeed reach the apex of her profession. Who will be the next mother to follow in her footsteps?
Image: Sandra Day O’Connor from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.