Sandra Day O’Connor – Notable Women in History Series


Sandra Day O’Connor, now 87, is best known for serving as the very first female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, beginning at the age of 51. She served for 24 years before retiring to take care of her husband, whose health was declining. Read on as we explore her contributions to the political landscape in the United States. 

O’Connor is the daughter of ranchers, who worked on the family ranch whose land was on the New Mexico-Arizona border, during the Great Depression. This experience taught her to value hard work and pragmatism, yet with an urge to do something more. When she left to receive her undergraduate (and later her graduate) degree at Stanford University, it is suggested that her father’s dreams for her were achieved.

During her time at Stanford Law, O’Connor met her husband, John J. O’Connor; they married shortly after graduation. She also met future fellow justice, William H. Rehnquist. O’Connor found it difficult to find her first job as a woman in law, resulting in her working for free, for the county attorney of San Mateo. However, she quickly proved herself as asset, and rose through the ranks.

In 1954, O’Connor left the country to work as an attorney for the Quartermaster Masker Center, in Frankfurt, Germany. 3 years later she returned, and settled with her husband in Arizona, where she started a private practice with another colleague. Eight years later, with an aim for returning to public law, she began working as the Assistant Attorney General of Arizona. In 1969, she was appointed to the Arizona State Senate to fill a vacancy. She retained the seat when she was elected to the State Senate for a full term as a Republican; she was reelected to that position twice, even serving as the first female majority leader in any state senate.

O’Connor continued to rise through the ranks of the Arizona judiciary until her nomination to become the first female justice of the United States in 1981. After her nomination by President Ronald Reagan, her resulting confirmation was unanimous within the Senate.

Though O’Connor was generally considered somewhat unpredictable in her voting as her career progressed, she was largely conservative. Jumping right in to her new duties, she drafted her first opinion on behalf of the majority in the case of Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, a case which involved gender discrimination: a man sued after he was denied admission to the traditionally all-female nursing school. The Court ruled that the school must admit qualified men. O’Connor took this further, by reasoning that this type of discrimination only served to perpetuate the stereotype that nursing was a woman’s job.

In 1992, O’Connor served as the swing vote in the widely publicized case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed the decision of the abortion rights case, Roe v. Wade. O’Connor continued to vote in favor of women’s rights when she was faced with 2 cases that involved the harassment of young girls in school, holding either the harassing classmates or schools responsible for their actions.

O’Connor was largely considered to be a majority builder whenever possible, but she often served as a swing vote in divisive cases. When a case lacked consensus, she strived to write the decision as narrowly as possible. O’Connor retired from the bench in 2006 to care for her ailing husband; he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and later died in 2009.

However, retirement did not prevent O’Connor from maintaining an active role in public life. She established a website dedicated to advocating for America’s youth to become involved in civics and government, through the website iCivics. The website provides creative and effective teaching tools on the subject of civic engagement. O’Connor still lives in Arizona.

This women's history month, we seek to acknowledge and appreciate her role in ensuring equal rights for all, and seeking to abolish harmful and unfair stereotyping.