Sandra Day O’Connor will always be known as the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, but her impact reached much further than that.
At age 16, O’Connor graduated from Radford School for Girls two years early, and was admitted to Stanford University, later to Stanford Law School. She also graduated from law school early, third in her class. Graduating into a hostile job market in which most law firms refused to hire female attorneys, she persevered and found a job at the San Mateo County District Attorney’s office, starting at first with no pay at all.
Throughout her law career she worked various positions, including Assistant Attorney General of Arizona. In 1969, O’Connor was appointed to the Arizona State Senate to fill a vacated seat, and the next year was elected for a full term as a Republican. She was reelected to that position twice, serving as the first female majority leader in any state senate.
She won her first position in the judiciary in 1975 for a seat in the Superior Court of Maricopa County, and was appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court of Appeals four years later. O’Connor worked in the state supreme court for only two years before President Ronald Reagan nominated her in 1981 to become the first female justice to serve on the United States Supreme Court. She was unanimously approved by the Senate.
On the Supreme Court, she often voted for majority and wrote many decisions relating to gender discrimination. As we all know, in 1992 she was the swing vote that reaffirmed Roe v. Wade. Over the course of two decades on the court, the justice became known as somewhat unpredictable. She was known for being a majority builder whenever possible, but also for being a swing vote in divisive cases. In cases lacking a consensus, she wrote as narrow a decision as possible.
She retired from the bench in 2006 to care for her husband, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Since retirement, she advocated for educating America’s youth on how they can be involved in civics and government.
With her death in December 2023, a long legacy ends. We will remember you, Sandra, and we thank you for the impact you’ve had on women’s lives.
Compiled by Lyn Crosby