How Sandra Day O'Connor Beat the Odds, Ruled the Court, and Became the Most Powerful Woman in America

CORBIS
CORBIS

Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recently announced that she is withdrawing from public life. In 2016, Mental Floss magazine profiled how the Arizona cowgirl rose to become the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, transforming a 191-year-old all-boys’ club and paving the way for female lawyers across the country. 

 

By Lizzie Jacobs

Sandra Day O’Connor’s desk was a mess. The day before, on September 25, 1981, she had been sworn in as the first woman on the Supreme Court. Her new office was already littered with briefs and cert requests. Not to mention nearly 10,000 missives from citizens across the nation—packages of hand-knit socks, family pictures, homemade fudge. Then there was the hate mail. “Back to your kitchen and home female!” read one letter. “This is a job for a man and only he can make rough decisions.”

The insults didn’t faze her. Neither did more pragmatic concerns, including the fact that nobody had ever thought to place a women’s restroom near the courtroom—because for 191 years, only men had sat on the Supreme Court. The closest ladies’ room required O’Connor to walk down an endless hallway. So she commandeered a nearby restroom instead.

O’Connor also took ownership of another boys’ room: the basketball court above the courtroom, jokingly called “the highest court in the land.” She wanted to exercise, and after she heard that other women in the building—secretaries and a few lone female clerks—did too, she reserved the gym and asked the local YWCA to send an aerobics teacher. She even ordered custom T-shirts that read Women Work Out at the Supreme Court. The class became a daily ritual.  

By the end of her first month, Sandra Day O’Connor had done more than break the Supreme Court’s glass ceiling—she’d stolen its spotlight. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, she wrote opinions that shaped major social and political issues, making decisions that led Tom Goldstein, a Supreme Court expert and founder of SCOTUSblog, to call her “one of the five most influential justices of the century.” The fact that this Arizona cowgirl was the first woman on the court, he says, is “more of an asterisk.”

How she got there, however, is another story.

In this photo from O’Connor’s scrapbook, she’s about 10, on her family’s Lazy B ranch near Duncan, Arizona. CORBIS

It was a hot day on the Lazy B ranch when 15-year-old Sandra Day learned how to change a tire. Her father, H.A. Day, and his ranch hands were tending to cattle far from home, where Sandra was loading a pickup truck with the crew’s supplies and lunch. She left at 7 in the morning—plenty of time to reach the cowboys by mealtime—and drove into the desert alone.

The sun was rising. Sandra’s grandfather had bought this 250-square-mile stretch of windswept desert straddling the Arizona–New Mexico border in 1880. Fifty years later, when Sandra was born, the family lived in a one-bedroom house with no running water, eking out a living repairing wells and raising cattle. Their closest neighbor was 25 miles away.

Driving over dirt and sand, the Chevy was more rickety than usual. Sandra stopped, hopped out, and noticed that a rear tire had pancaked. She figured out how to jack up the car, grabbed a lug wrench, and twisted the lug nuts as hard as she could. They wouldn’t budge. Rusted. Watching the sun rise higher in the sky, she propped her foot on the wrench and began jumping until the rust cracked.

Sandra reached the roundup well past lunchtime, and the men were branding cattle. She explained that she had woken up early, that she’d had a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, that the lug nuts were rusted tight, that she was lucky to be there at all.

It sounds like a triumph, but her father was unimpressed. “You should have started a lot earlier,” he said. That was the end of their conversation. No excuses.

Living alone with a bunch of cowboys in the middle of the desert breeds a certain type of pragmatism. For Sandra, days on the ranch could begin lying on her back reading Nancy Drew and end with the mercy killing of a calf. She rode horses, drove tractors, branded cattle, shot .22-caliber rifles, and tamed a pet bobcat (named Bob). When she lay in bed at night, she listened to coyotes. “We were ranchers,” O’Connor recalled in a 2008 speech at Stanford. “We didn’t know lawyers or judges.”

Sandra joined her father and his ranch hands on roundups, steering cattle and spending nights without a pillow or bathroom in sight. In her memoir, Lazy B, she wrote, “It had been an all-male domain. Changing it to accommodate a female was probably my first initiation into joining an all-men’s club.” Soon, her younger sister and niece rode along without objection.

The ranch, however, was no formal education, so Sandra’s parents sent her to an all-girls’ private school in El Paso, Texas, where she lived a double life with her maternal grandmother. There, she rubbed shoulders with society girls and their families, learning about the right clothes, ice cream socials, and graceful houses. Knowing how to don a lavender suit with a perfect bob gave the Western gal a polished finish that made her, in the words of Eric Citron, a future clerk, “One of the most enchanting people you will ever meet in your entire life.”

At 16, after skipping two grades, Sandra entered Stanford University. She majored in economics, but a law professor, Harry Rathbun, changed her life. Each Sunday, Rathbun invited students into his home to discuss the meaning of life, making passionate arguments that each individual had a civic duty to serve his or her community. Sandra was struck. She’d spent her life as a self-reliant cowgirl, miles from the closest town. Now, she felt an obligation to serve. “He was the most inspiring teacher I ever had,” she said. After graduating, the 20-year-old applied to Stanford Law School. She was admitted, just one of four women in her class.

“I had no understanding then about the almost total lack of opportunities for women in the legal profession,” she’d say. “Had I realized how hard it would be to get a job as a woman lawyer, I would have chosen another path.”

Women have been symbols of justice since the Egyptian goddess Ma’at, but men have kept the scales of justice from them for just as long. By O’Connor’s time, a statue of Lady Justice adorned most courthouses, but actual lady justices—or even lady lawyers—were still very much unwelcome.

It started in 1869, when Myra Bradwell attempted to become America’s first female lawyer. She passed the Illinois bar exam, but the state supreme court refused to give her a law license. When Bradwell brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1872, she lost. The justices deemed that “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life,” and described a woman seeking such a career as “repugnant.”

For the next seven decades, states could legally deny women the opportunity to practice law—and did. (Charlotte E. Ray, the first black female lawyer, was admitted to the Washington, D.C., bar in 1872 because she went by her initials and the committee assumed she was a man.) At the turn of the century, famed lawyer Clarence Darrow told a group of woman attorneys, “You have not a high grade of intellect ... I doubt if you [can] ever make a living.”

Things began to change by World War II, when a shortage of men prompted qualified women—many of whom had settled for jobs as legal librarians, stenographers, and secretaries—to obtain jobs at law firms. Some law schools saw this as a problem. When Harvard president James B. Conant was asked how the law school was handling the shortage, he crowed, “We have 75 students, and we haven’t had to admit any women.” By 1950, only three percent of lawyers were women.

Sandra Day paid no attention. She was too busy excelling in law school, where she edited the Law Review and ranked third in her class. After graduating in 1952, she realized history was stacked against her: Firms refused to interview a woman. When she finally snagged an interview with California’s Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, one partner asked her, “Miss Day, how do you type?” He was offering her a secretarial job, which she declined.

When Sandra heard that the district attorney of San Mateo County had hired a woman in the past, she visited the office and asked for a job. The county attorney waved her off, saying there were no vacancies. Sandra insisted she’d work for free. They didn’t have enough desks, he protested. She later got the job—with no pay—because she convinced the secretary to share desk space with her.

After marrying John O’Connor, whom she met at Stanford, Sandra briefly worked in Germany, then moved to Phoenix to open a small walk-in law practice in a suburban strip mall, the kind of place where customers came in unannounced to complain about grocery bills and shifty landlords. It wasn’t prestigious, but it kept her in the game.

Then her babysitter quit.

In those days, having children was career suicide. But in O’Connor’s case, it was the best move she ever made.

“Small children need supervision day and night,” she wrote mental_floss in an email. “With two little children I needed to be ‘at home’ with them.” She stayed “at home” for about six years—while volunteering for enough civic and community groups to fill a couple of lifetimes.

O’Connor served on the Maricopa County Board of Adjustment and Appeals and the Governor’s Committee on Marriage and the Family, chaired the Maricopa County Juvenile Detention Home Visiting Board, and was an administrative assistant at the Arizona State Hospital. She wrote questions for the Arizona bar exam, volunteered at a school for minorities, worked as an adviser to the Salvation Army, and acted as district chair for the local chapter of the Republican party.

All that (and more) while practicing a little law on the side. And raising three boys.  

Politicians noticed. Those connections helped O’Connor—who still could not get hired at a private firm—earn a part-time job at the attorney general’s office, where she climbed her way up to assistant attorney general. Her work impressed Arizona’s governor so much that he selected her to fill a vacant seat in the state senate. Within months, her Republican colleagues voted her majority leader, making O’Connor America’s first female majority leader of a state legislature.

O’Connor knew what she wanted: to remove sexism from the books. She searched for laws biased against women and quietly worked to change them. The Republicans had a razor-thin majority—negotiations were essential. She regularly hosted parties at her adobe house, inviting leaders from all sides to eat homemade burritos, not to broker deals, but to get to know one another.

Her cooking was legendary, but at work she was all business. “With Sandra O’Connor, there ain’t no Miller Time,” one colleague quipped. She was just as fastidious, if not nitpicky, as a stateswoman. (One time she introduced an amendment to remove a single misplaced comma from a bill.) She hit the second shift of motherhood hard. Once, when a budget deadline loomed, a fellow legislator moaned that it would be impossible to reach a compromise before midnight. O’Connor insisted they would finish by 6 p.m.: Her son was leaving for summer camp, and she wanted to be home in time to bake cookies before he left. It worked.

In 1975, O’Connor won a judgeship in Maricopa County, where she built a reputation as a no-nonsense taskmaster who followed the law to the letter, even when it conflicted with her beliefs. In one case, she sentenced a woman to five to 10 years in prison for passing $3,500 in bad checks. The woman’s husband had abandoned her, and the jail sentence meant the state would take her children. After ruling, O’Connor cried in her chambers.

In the spring of 1981, President Ronald Reagan learned that Justice Potter Stewart was resigning. Months earlier, as he campaigned for the presidency, Reagan had courted women voters by promising to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court. When his advisers tried to talk him out of it, pointing to the dozens of available men for the job, Reagan insisted. A promise was a promise.

In April 1981, two Reagan staffers flew to Phoenix to meet with the candidate, who presented them with a salmon mousse and a stunning knowledge of constitutional jurisprudence. Dazzled, they invited her back to Washington to meet with the president.

Reagan’s earliest ranches may have been Hollywood sets with plywood saguaros and stunt horses, but he was a sensible westerner at heart. O’Connor told Reagan’s staff she’d meet them in front of a drugstore, wearing a lavender suit. Once they met, they talked about horse riding and life on ranches. Afterward, he refused to meet with anyone else.

Ruth McGregor, who became O’Connor’s first clerk, remembers hearing about the nomination on the radio: “I was, like most women in law, literally overcome. I was driving my car and had to pull over to the side because I just burst into tears.” Though religious conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly and Jesse Helms tried to sink the nomination on the grounds that O’Connor would uphold Roe v. Wade, the Senate confirmed her with a record-setting 99-0. The Supreme Court, 191 years old, had gone coed.

Sandra Day O’Connor broke through to become the first woman on the supreme court in September 1981. CORBIS

The fame was suffocating. “I had never expected or aspired to be a Supreme Court justice,” O’Connor said in the Deseret News in 1988. “My first year on the court made me long at times for obscurity.” She tried to answer every letter she received, even the countless invitations from Washington socialites. She and her husband were happy to dance the night away, but the learning curve was so steep that she had to ditch the dance floor (and sleep) to read briefs and edit opinions.

O’Connor knew she needed to establish herself as a jurist. “Eternally a ranch girl, she wanted solutions that really worked and had little patience for esoteric theory that had no grounding in reality,” recalls O’Connor clerk RonNell Andersen Jones in a SCOTUSblog retrospective. Advocates before the court were guaranteed that O’Connor would ask the first question, and it “would be overwhelmingly practical,” Goldstein said. Her fellow justices ritually asked how an argument squared with legal precedents, but O’Connor wanted to know how it affected people.

“A wise old woman and a wise old man will reach the same conclusion,” O’Connor says, but she acknowledges she brought experiences that her brothers on the court didn’t have. She was a key vote on cases about gender equality. In Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, for example, she decided that a women’s state nursing college couldn’t exclude men, knowing that letting men into a traditionally female profession would probably bring about higher salaries.

She became famous for her narrow opinions, which avoided creating broad, sweeping rules of law that might lead to new injustices. Even when voting for the majority, she often wrote concurring opinions that made the majority’s decision less broad. (In one voting rights case, she wrote a concurring opinion to her own opinion.) The philosophy distinguished O’Connor as unpredictable. Unless she had encountered a similar case before, it was hard to know what she’d decide. By the 1990s, with consistent blocs to her left and right, she was the deciding vote.

“She wouldn’t have felt her vote was any different than anyone else’s vote,” Citron says. Indeed, O’Connor was the glue of the court. “She knew you have to talk—it’s not a question of talking about the court stuff, you have to know people,” recalls NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. She set up regular lunches with the justices and took her clerks and staff out hiking, fly-fishing, and white-water rafting. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999, O’Connor was the first person to call her in the hospital. She reached out to the community, too: In 2001, she made a guest appearance at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre to bring King Lear to trial. (The verdict? “Not mad.”)

Retired since 2006, O’Connor sees the current trio of lady justices as her legacy, but her footprint is vastly larger. “We really can’t exaggerate how much it affected things,” McGregor says. “This was still a time in the legal profession where women were regarded as not capable … Once someone is a member of the Supreme Court and is doing the job well, it’s really hard to argue that women aren’t qualified.” The statistics don’t lie. Today, the ratio of women to men studying law tickles 50 percent. Women make up about 33 percent of lawyers and 27 percent of state judges. While the numbers aren’t equal, O’Connor kicked the door wide open so that one day, they may be.  

This story appeared in March/April 2016 issue of mental_floss magazine: 54 Powerful Women Who Changed the World.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Jimmy Carter

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Bridging the gap between the often-maligned Gerald Ford and the drug-busting Ronald Reagan was Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States and one of the most esteemed humanitarians ever to hold the office. At the age of 95, Carter—who was born in Plains, Georgia on October 1, 1924—is also the oldest living former president.

While a near-century-long life is hard to summarize, we’ve assembled a few things that may surprise you about one of our most fondly-remembered elected officials.

1. Jimmy Carter did not grow up in the lap of luxury.

Born in Plains, Georgia on October 1, 1924, James Earl Carter’s early years didn’t involve a lot of the rapid technological progressions that were taking place around the country. His family relocated to Archery, Georgia—a town that relied chiefly on mule-drawn wagons for transportation—when Carter was 4 years old. Indoor plumbing and electricity were rare. To pass time, Carter typically listened to entertainment shows on a battery-operated radio with his father.

2. Jimmy Carter drew criticism for rejecting racist beliefs.

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, Carter served in the military, during which time he married and had three sons. (A fourth child, daughter Amy, was born in 1967.) After his father died in 1953, Carter was honorably discharged and settled on the family peanut farm in Plains, where he found that the South’s deeply-rooted racial biases were in direct conflict with his own progressive views of integration. When Plains residents assembled a “White Citizens’ Council” to combat anti-discrimination laws, Carter refused membership. Soon, signs were pasted on his front door full of racist remarks. But Carter held to his views: By the 1960s, voters were ready to embrace a politician without biases, and Carter was elected to the Georgia State Senate.

Unfortunately, Carter found that his liberal views could only take him so far in Georgia. When he ran for state governor in 1970, he backed off on many of his previously-publicized views on racial equality, leading some to declare him bigoted. Once in office, however, Carter restored many of his endorsements to end segregation.

3. Jimmy Carter caused quite a story by doing an interview with Playboy.

Few, if any, presidential candidates have attempted to stir up support by submitting to an intensive interview in the pages of Playboy, but Carter’s 1976 bid was an exception. Just weeks before he won the election, Carter admitted to having “committed adultery in my heart” many times and that he “looked on a lot of women with lust.”

4. Jimmy Carter never liked the pageantry of the presidency.

When Carter entered the office of the presidency in 1977, he made it clear that he considered himself no more elevated in status than his voters simply because of political power. He sold the presidential yacht, thinking it a symbol of excess; he also carried his own briefcase and banned workers from playing “Hail to the Chief” during appearances.

5. Jimmy Carter may have seen a UFO.

Prior to taking office, Carter filed an interesting report with the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, or NICAP. In 1969, Carter wrote, he spotted a strange aircraft in the sky over Leary, Georgia. It appeared to hover 30 degrees above the horizon before disappearing. Carter promised to release every sealed document the government had collected about UFOs if elected, but later walked back on the promise, citing national security concerns.

6. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels at the White House.

Carter spent considerable time and effort promoting renewable energy sources as the world struggled with an ongoing fuel crisis. To demonstrate his commitment, Carter ordered that solar panels be installed on White House grounds in 1979, decades before such a practice became commonplace. The panels were used to heat water on the property. Ronald Reagan had the panels removed in 1986 during a roof renovation.

7. Jimmy Carter was a movie buff who watched more than 400 films while in office.

Carter was a movie buff who, as president, enjoyed early access to many films—and he averaged a couple of movies a week while in office. Among those viewed: 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, 1976’s All the President’s Men, and 1980’s Caddyshack. Carter also screened 1977’s Star Wars with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

8. Jimmy Carter boycotted the 1980 Olympics.

After Soviet forces failed to heed Carter’s mandate to pull their troops out of Afghanistan, Carter committed to a radical step: He prevented American athletes from competing in the 1980 Games in Moscow, the first time the nation had failed to appear in the competition. Canada, West Germany, Japan, and around 50 other countries followed Carter’s lead. When the Games moved to Los Angeles in 1984, it was the Soviet Union's turn to refuse to appear.

9. Jimmy Carter was attacked by a rabbit.

Before running for (and losing) re-election in 1980, Carter decided to take a little time for himself and go fishing near his home in Plains. While in his boat, a wild rabbit that was being chased by hounds jumped into the water and swam toward the boat. Carter shooed the animal away with a paddle. Although it was a minor incident, a photo snapped of Carter flailing at the bunny and numerous editorial cartoons gave some voters the perception he was a less-than-ideal adversary for the powerful Soviet Union and may have led to an image of Carter as ineffectual.

10. Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

After decades of philanthropic work, including a longstanding association with Habitat for Humanity, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. It was actually a quarter-century overdue: The Nobel committee wanted to award him the prize in 1978 after he helped broker peace talks between Israel and Egypt, but no one had nominated him before the official deadline had closed.

This story has been updated for 2019.

3 Ways to Register to Vote in Less Than 5 Minutes

IcemanJ/iStock via Getty Images
IcemanJ/iStock via Getty Images

The 2020 presidential race is already dominating the news cycle, but before that election occurs, citizens will have the chance to vote in their state and local elections. Off-year elections don't get a ton of national press, which means people are less likely to remember to register to vote until it's too late. But if you're reading this on September 24, National Voter Registration Day, you still have plenty of time to sign up before the next Election Day on November 5, 2019. First, you'll want to be sure that you're registered to vote (here's how to do that). Then, here are 3 quick ways to register to vote today.

1. Download an app.

If you feel intimidated by the thought of voting, download VoterPal. The app is designed to make every step of the process as clear and simple as possible. Start by opening the app and scanning your state ID. From there, VoterPal auto-populates your form with the relevant information so you don't have to, all while taking your state's voting rules into account. And if any details are missing, the app makes it easy to input them by hand in less than a few minutes.

2. Visit a website.

As of this year, 38 states and Washington, D.C., permit online voting registration. There are many websites designed to help citizens take advantage of these laws, including IWillVote.com. After checking your status, you can fill out your voter information using the site's convenient digital form. I Will Vote also gives you the option to share your pledge to vote on social media. Other online voting registration websites, like TurboVote.org and RocktheVote.org, work the same way. You can also go straight to your state's official website and sign up there if the law allows it.

3. Attend an event.

Many states require citizens to print, sign, and scan their voter registration forms, which takes some of the convenience out of signing up online. By finding a voter registration event in real life, you can fill out and sign a physical copy your form and depend on someone else to get it into the right hands. If you head to NationalVoterRegistrationDay.org, you can enter your zip code and see the list of drives taking place in your area for National Voter Registration Day.

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