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.

45 Amazing Facts About All 44 American Presidents

iStock.com/traveler1116
iStock.com/traveler1116

In March 1789, the U.S. Constitution was officially enacted and the office of the President of the United States was established. The following month, General George Washington was sworn in as the first Commander-in-Chief and since then, 44 men have held the job (one in two non-consecutive terms, which is why we have 45 presidencies total). Below is an interesting tidbit about each person who has held the highest office in the land.

1. George Washington

George Washington with his family.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Not only was George Washington known as the father of the country, he was also known as the "Father of the American Foxhound" for creating a unique breed of foxhound he called "Virginia Hounds."

2. John Adams

John Adams
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

John Adams signed a congressional act creating the United States Marine Band in 1798, which is now the oldest active professional musical organization in the U.S. Known as the President's Own, they played at the first ever New Year's celebration at the president’s house and, later, at Thomas Jefferson's inauguration.

3. Thomas Jefferson

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson.
iStock.com/traveler1116

Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his personal library when the Library of Congress was burned by the British during the War of 1812. He sold them 6487 books from his own collection, the largest in America at the time.

4. James Madison

James Madison
National Archive, Newsmakers

James and Dolley Madison were crazy for ice cream. They had an ice house built on the grounds of their Montpelier estate so that they could enjoy ice cream and cold drinks all summer long, and they were known to serve bowls of oyster ice cream at official government functions.

5. James Monroe

James Monroe
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

James Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth, attended Napoleon's coronation at Notre Dame Cathedral in 1804 while he was serving as the American ambassador in the U.K.

6. John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams
Henry Guttmann, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Quincy Adams enjoyed skinny-dipping. He was known to take 5 a.m. plunges in the Potomac River as part of his morning exercise routine.

7. Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Andrew Jackson despised banks and made it his mission to defund the Second Bank of the United States (he succeeded). So, it seems particularly ironic that his portrait has graced the $20 since 1929.

8. Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Born in New York in 1782, Martin Van Buren was the first president to have been born after the American Revolution, technically making him the first American-born president. (The seven before him were all born in the American colonies.)

9. William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Harrison kept a goat as his pet, but never bothered to name him. (He called him Billy goat.) He also had a beloved cow he called Sukey.

10. John Tyler

John Tyler
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

John Tyler loved music and had considered becoming a concert violinist before deciding to follow his father's advice and study law. Often, he would play music for guests at the White House and in his later years he devoted himself to perfecting his skill at violin and fiddle. In 2004, when he was sculpted in bronze as part of a presidents' memorial in South Dakota, the artists included his violin in his statue.

11. James K. Polk

James Polk
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When he was 17, James Polk needed surgery to have some kidney stones removed. He had some brandy to numb the pain but was awake for the entire procedure—anesthesia wouldn't be invented for another 30-some years.

12. Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor and his horse, Old Whitey.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Zachary Taylor was a war hero whose beloved horse, Old Whitey, was nearly as popular as he was—numerous times while the steed was grazing on the White House lawn, visitors would approach him to pluck a hair from his tail for a souvenir.

13. Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

A voracious reader, Millard Fillmore was known to keep a dictionary on him in order to improve his vocabulary.

14. Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce
National Archive, Newsmakers

Franklin Pierce had a number of nicknames, including "Handsome Frank," but likely the most embarrassing was "Fainting Frank." As a brigadier general in the Mexican-American war, he sustained a groin and knee injury during a battle in 1847 when he was thrown against the pommel of his horse. He only briefly passed out from the pain, but the nickname stuck around for life.

15. James Buchanan

James Buchanan
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Though James Buchanan was engaged once in his late twenties, she broke it off. He became the only president who was a lifelong bachelor.

16. Abraham Lincoln

portrait of Abraham Lincoln
iStock.com/ilbusca

Before Abraham Lincoln found his "look" with his famous beard, he was known for his fairly unkempt appearance. One reporter referred to his "thatch of wild republican hair" with his "irregular flocks of thick hair carelessly brushed" across his face.

17. Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In his day, Andrew Johnson was known as the best dressed president. Growing up, his mother sent him to apprentice with a tailor, and he frequently made his own clothes and suits.

18. Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant
Spencer Arnold, Getty Images

In an attempt to unite the North and South, Ulysses S. Grant made Christmas a national holiday in 1870.

19. Rutherford B. Hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes
National Archive, Newsmakers

The first Siamese cat to arrive in America was sent as a gift to Hayes and his wife, Lucy, by the American consul in Bangkok. Siam the cat landed at the White House in 1879 after traveling by ship to Hong Kong then San Francisco, and then by train to Washington, D.C.

20. James A. Garfield

James A Garfield
National Archive, Newsmakers

As a child, James Garfield dreamed of being a sailor. He read a number of nautical novels which fueled his imagination, but a teenage job towing barges was as close to a seafaring life as he saw.

21. Chester A. Arthur

Chester Alan Arthur
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Chester A. Arthur oversaw a massive renovation of the White House and its private chambers. Arthur hired Louis C. Tiffany—Tiffany and Co.'s first design director and the man most known for his work with stained glass—to do all of the redesign. To help cover some of the costs, Arthur had 24 wagon-loads of old furniture, drapes, and other household items (some of which dated back to the Adams administration) sold at auction.

22. Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland circa 1885.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He was born Stephen Grover Cleveland, but dropped Stephen before he entered into politics. He was affectionately called "Uncle Jumbo" by his younger relatives because he was nearly 6 feet tall and weighed about 270 pounds.

23. Benjamin Harrison

Portrait of Benjamin Harrison.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Benjamin Harrison had a tight-knit family and loved to amuse and dote on his grandchildren. He put up the first recorded White House Christmas tree in 1889, and was known to put on the Santa suit for entertainment.

24. Grover Cleveland

Portrait of Grover Cleveland
iStock

Grover Cleveland was also the first (and only) U.S. President to serve non-consecutive terms, so he makes this list twice. Between terms, he moved back to New York City, worked at a law firm, and his wife gave birth to their famous first daughter, Baby Ruth.

25. William McKinley

Portrait of William McKinley
National Archive, Newsmakers/Getty

William McKinley had a double yellow-headed Amazon parrot named Washington Post who served in an official capacity as a White House greeter. The bird also knew the song "Yankee Doodle Dandy"—the president would whistle the first few notes, and then Washington Post would finish the rest.

26. Theodore Roosevelt

Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt
Hulton Archive, Getty

For his official White House portrait, Theodore Roosevelt chose the famed French portraiture artist Theobald Chartran, who had earlier done a portrait of the First Lady Edith Roosevelt. "It was difficult to get the president to sit still," The New York Times reported Chartran said before the painting was unveiled and displayed in France in 1903. "I never had a more restless or more charming sitter." Roosevelt, however, hated the painting, and after hiding it in a dark hall of the White House for years, he eventually burned it.

27. William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft
Topical Press Agency, Getty Images

In 1910, William Taft became the first president to attend baseball's opening day and throw the ceremonial first pitch, a tradition that has been honored by nearly every president since (sans Carter and Trump, thus far).

28. Woodrow Wilson

portrait of Woodrow Wilson
Tony Essex/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Woodrow Wilson is among many U.S. Presidents known for their love of golf. Wilson enjoyed daily rounds to stay in shape and relax, particularly during World War I, when he even used black golf balls so he could play through the winter.

29. Warren G. Harding

Portrait of Warren G. Harding
Courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers

Warren G. Harding loved playing poker and held weekly games at the White House. Rumor has it he even bet, and lost, an entire set of official White House china.

30. Calvin Coolidge

portrait of Calvin Coolidge
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Though three presidents (Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe) have died on the 4th of July, Calvin Coolidge is the only president to have been born on that date.

31. Herbert Hoover

portrait of Herbert Hoover
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

After he left office, Herbert Hoover wrote a number of books, including The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, the first biography of a president written by another president.

32. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Portrait of Franklin D Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, taken at the time of their engagement, circa 1903.
Portrait of Franklin D Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, taken at the time of their engagement, circa 1903.
Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Franklin married Eleanor Roosevelt in 1905, they chose the date March 17 because President Theodore Roosevelt would be in New York City for the St. Patrick's Day parade, and he'd agreed to walk Eleanor, his niece, down the aisle. FDR and TR were fifth cousins.

33. Harry S. Truman

Harry Truman takes the oath of office in 1945; standing beside him are his wife, Bess, and daughter, Margaret.
Harry Truman takes the oath of office in 1945; standing beside him are his wife, Bess, and daughter, Margaret.
Central Press/Getty Images

Though Harry Truman met his wife, Bess, in the fifth grade and they were high school sweethearts, they didn't marry until they were in their mid-thirties.

34. Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower in front of a WWII map.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Even though Ike's military career spanned both world wars and made him one of only nine men who have ever attained the rank of five-star general, he never once saw active combat.

35. John F. Kennedy

JFK during a campaign.
Keystone/Getty Images

JFK lived off of his family's considerable trusts, so he donated all of his congressional and presidential salaries to charities like the United Negro College Fund and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.

36. Lyndon B. Johnson

Lyndon B. Johnson behind a podium.
Keystone/Getty Images

Lyndon Johnson had two beagles named Him and Her. The dogs became national celebrities after being frequently photographed with the president; they were heavily featured in a 1964 Life magazine profile that stated, "Not many dogs have been privileged to shoo birds off the White House lawn, get underfoot at a Cabinet meeting, or mingle with dignitaries at a state ball."

37. Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon playing the piano.
National Archive/Newsmakers

Nixon's mother encouraged him to play piano at an early age and he went on to learn violin, clarinet, saxophone, and accordion. In 1961, he even performed a song he wrote on The Jack Paar Program.

38. Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford in 1934.
Michigan University/Getty Images

Ford attended the University of Michigan, where he was a star football player. The team won national titles in both 1932 and '33 (Ford's sophomore and junior years). After graduation, he turned down offers to play with both the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers; instead, he took a coaching job at Yale University because he also wanted to attend their law school.

39. Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jimmy Carter was known for his frugality, and he went so far as to sell the presidential yacht while he was in office. The USS Sequoia had been in use since the Hoover administration, but by 1977, it cost $800,000 a year in upkeep and staffing. Carter sold it for $236,000.

40. Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan in 1965.
Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images

Ronald Reagan's last acting role was also his first go as a villain. The film, 1964's The Killers, was based on an Ernest Hemingway story and was intended to be one of the first made-for-television movies. The network, however deemed it too violent for TV, so it was released in theaters instead.

41. George H.W. Bush

George H.W. Bush and wife Barbara Bush in November 1978.
George H.W. Bush and wife Barbara Bush in November 1978.
Dirck Halstead/Liaison

George and his wife, Barbara, met as teenagers in 1941 and were married just over two years later. They died within months of each other in 2018, and their 73-year marriage was the longest of any first couple. (The second-longest presidential marriage was that of John and Abigail Adams at 54 years. Adams was the only other president whose son also held the job.)

42. Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton does a crossword puzzle
Steam Pipe Trunk Distribution, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Bill Clinton enjoys crossword puzzles so much he once wrote the clues for a New York Times puzzle in 2017.

43. George W. Bush

George W. Bush goes jogging with an injured army veteran.
President George W. Bush jogs with Army Staff Sergeant Christian Bagge, who lost both legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq, at the White House in 2006.
Matthew Cavanaugh-Pool, Getty Images

In 1993—two years before he became the governor of Texas—George W. Bush ran the Houston marathon, finishing with a time of 3:44:52. He is the only president to have ever run a marathon.

44. Barack Obama

Obama playing basketball with his staff.
President Barack Obama plays basketball with cabinet secretaries and members of Congress on the White House court in 2009.
Pete Souza, The White House via Getty Images

Barack Obama's love of basketball was well-documented during his presidency, but according to one of his high school teammates, he earned the nickname "Barry O'Bomber" because of all the tough shots he was known to take (and miss).

45. Donald Trump

Donald Trump with a book.
Peter Kramer/Getty Images

Of the many commercial products that Donald Trump has put his name on, the Tour de Trump—a bike race meant to be the American answer to the Tour de France—might be the oddest. It was called that for its first two years (1989-'90) before being renamed the Tour de DuPont for its final six years as an event.

Who Was the "Gerry" of Gerrymandering?

Elbridge Gerry // Public Domain
Elbridge Gerry // Public Domain

This week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it has no authority to decide cases that challenge partisan gerrymandering—a practice in which political parties draw Congressional districts to increase votes in their favor. Gerrymandering shifts power away from voters to toward the parties, and the Supreme Court's decision is likely to increase the momentum.

But how, exactly, do elected officials pick and choose their voters? Their main tactic is as simple as it is unfair. By redrawing the borders of electoral districts, members of a given political party can cram the opposition’s supporters into as few precincts as possible—thus grabbing a disproportionate amount of power.

The tactic gets its name after a man who helped make the Bill of Rights happen, a one-time vice president, and the only signer of the Declaration of Independence who's buried in Washington, D.C.

“A Man of Immense Worth”

Elbridge Gerry was born on July 17, 1744. He was a native of Marblehead, Massachusetts, and both his parents were linked to the merchant business. Gerry took up the trade in 1762 and became an exporter of cod (a profitable fish upon which countless fortunes have been built).

At age 28, he won a seat on the colony’s general court, where he’d come to share Samuel Adams’s revolutionary rhetoric. In 1776, Gerry joined the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Throughout his tenure there, Gerry demanded pay raises for patriot troops, earning him the nickname “soldier’s friend.” The merchant’s integrity was widely admired, even by John Adams (who was notoriously hard to impress). “[He] is a man of immense worth,” wrote the future president. “If every man here was a Gerry, the liberties of America would be safe against the gates of Earth and Hell.”

In 1787, with the war over, Gerry took part in the Constitutional Convention. The importance of his presence cannot be understated. After all, it was he who moved to include a Bill of Rights—an idea that his colleagues shot down. Five days after the proposal, the newly completed Constitution was ready to be signed. Since a Bill of Rights was nowhere to be found, Gerry—along with just two other delegates who made it to the end of the convention—withheld his signature.

A subsequent letter to the Massachusetts State Legislature explained this choice. “It was painful for me, on a subject of such national importance, to differ from the respectable members who signed the Constitution; but conceiving, as I did, that the liberties of America were not secured by the system, it was my duty to oppose it,” Gerry stated. He may have lost that battle, but he ultimately won the war. Thanks in part to dissenters like him, a 10-amendment Bill of Rights was formally adopted on December 15, 1791.

Had he retired from politics right then and there, Elbridge Gerry might have gone down in history as the “Father of the Bill of Rights.” Instead, he’s remembered first and foremost for another, less admirable claim to fame.

Redrawing his legacy

Massachusetts made Gerry its eighth governor in 1810. By then, America had turned into a nation divided. Two rival parties now split the electorate: Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans and the late Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists.

Gerry belonged to the former group, which backed his successful re-election campaign in 1811. At the time, Democratic-Republicans represented the Massachusetts legislature’s majority party. This gave them enough votes to pull off a rather devious scheme that secured big wins in the state Senate one year later.

The plan was brilliant in its straightforwardness. Early in 1812, Democratic-Republican legislators laid out new districts which shoehorned most Federalist Party supporters into a handful of precincts.

Behind closed doors, Governor Gerry denounced this plot, calling it “highly disagreeable.” Unfortunately, that didn’t stop him from signing the proposed new districts into law anyway. The result was a monstrously slanted election season. Overall, Federalist candidates for the state Senate earned 1602 more votes than their Jeffersonian opponents did. Yet, because of these new precincts, the Democratic-Republican Party nabbed 29 seats to the Federalist’s 11.

The new state electoral map looked positively absurd. Thanks to partisan manipulation, districts now came in all manner of irregular shapes. Particularly infamous was one such division in Essex County. To the staff of The Weekly Messenger, a prominent Federalist newspaper, this squiggly precinct looked like a mythical salamander. Thus, the name “Gerrymander” was born—and it stuck.

The Federalist surge meant that Gerry was ousted from office, but Gerry’s career wasn’t quite over yet. On the contrary, it saw a swift rebound when James Madison chose him to become his second vice president the following year. But like Madison’s previous VP, Gerry didn’t last long. Death took him while he was still in office on November 23, 1814.

Those interested may find his grave in the capital city of the nation he helped create. Nestled inside Washington’s Congressional Cemetery is Elbridge Gerry’s tomb. Above it sits the first monument ever funded in full by the federal government, where visitors can read Gerry’s personal creed: “It is the duty of every man, though he may have but one day to live, to devote that day to the good of his country.”

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