How Sandra Day O'Connor Beat the Odds, Ruled the Court, and Became the Most Powerful Woman in America
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.
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.
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 appears in March/April issue of mental_floss magazine: 54 Powerful Women Who Changed the World.