Sandra Day O’Connor

Much more than America’s first female Supreme Court Justice

Created date

February 15th, 2019
A woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, sits in a chair wearing a black robe and white color, on the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006.

Late last year, in a letter addressed to “friends and fellow Americans,” former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement from public life. She explained her decision this way: “Some time ago, doctors diagnosed me with the beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease. As this condition has progressed, I am no longer able to participate in public life.”

While the letter bore sad news, O’Connor chose not to dwell on her unfortunate personal circumstances. Instead, she looked back at her unique journey and forward to her legacy. “As a young cowgirl from the Arizona desert,” she said, “I never could have imagined that one day I would become the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. I hope that I have inspired young people about civic engagement and helped pave the pathway for women who may have faced obstacles pursuing their careers.”

When President Ronald Reagan appointed her to the Supreme Court, she not only became the nation’s first female justice but also the most powerful woman in the United States. Beyond her work on the highest court in the land, O’Connor led a full and fruitful life.

A new biography, First: Sandra Day O’Connor by Evan Thomas is an intimate look at the life O’Conner led before, during, and after her arrival in Washington, D.C. Thoughtful and easy to read, some of the facts Thomas presents in his book were unknown until now.

Cowgirl

Born in 1930, Sandra Day O’Connor grew up on a 198,000-acre ranch in Duncan, Ariz. Nine miles from the nearest paved road, her childhood home had no running water or electricity until she was seven.

Early on, O’Connor’s parents, Harry and Ada Day, recognized their eldest daughter’s exceptional intelligence. To provide her with a good education, they sent her to live with her grandmother in El Paso, Tex., where she attended the Radford School for Girls. Later, she attended public high school graduating sixth in her class at Austin High School in El Paso. Having skipped a few grades, she was only sixteen at the time.

Next, O’Connor headed to Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., graduating with a degree in economics before continuing at Stanford Law.

Bright and witty, there was no shortage of eligible young men vying for O’Connor’s attention. Before she graduated with her law degree in 1952, she had had no fewer than four proposals of marriage.

Thomas reveals that one of those proposals came from none other than William Rehnquist—the man who went on to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and served at the same time as O’Conner.

While researching the biography, Thomas came across a letter Rehnquist had sent O’Conner while they were still in school. In the letter, Rehnquist asks, “To be specific, Sandy, will you marry me this summer?”

As described in the book, he was not what she was looking for in a husband, but she nevertheless held him in high esteem and considered him a good and lifelong friend.

O’Connor’s son Jay told NPR that he and his two brothers were surprised to learn of the proposal.

Another marriage proposal came from fellow Stanford classmate John Jay O’Connor. That was the proposal she accepted, and they enjoyed a long and loving 57-year marriage.

Supreme Court Justice

Thomas says O’Connor was the most powerful Supreme Court justice of her time. “For most of her 24-plus years on the court from October 1981 to January 2006, she was the controlling vote on many of the great societal issues, including abortion, affirmative action, and religious freedom, so much so that the press came to call it the ‘O’Connor Court,’” says Thomas in the book’s prologue. “She was a global ambassador for the rule of law and a role model for a generation of young women who saw her break the glass ceiling and were inspired to believe they could do the same.”

Retirement

Toward the end of her tenure at the Supreme Court, O’Connor spent a great deal of time caring for her husband John, who was suffering from dementia. Though she did eventually move John into a memory care facility, it is remarkable that she was his sole caretaker for so long.

Since retiring in 2006, O’Connor worked on an issue she had always felt strongly about—expanding basic civics education throughout the U.S. She created iCivics, a nonprofit company that uses online games to teach civics lessons.

“We must reach all our youth, and we need to find ways to get people—young and old—more involved in their communities and in their government,” O’Connor wrote in her recent letter. “I can no longer help lead this cause, due to my physical condition. It is time for new leaders to make civic learning and civic engagement a reality for all.”


Did you know? This month marks the thirty-second anniversary of National Women’s History Month, which recognizes and celebrates women’s contributions to our society and history.

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