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How the First Woman Was Nominated to the Supreme Court

Ronald Reagan's 1980 Presidential Campaign Promise Paved the Way


How the First Woman Was Nominated to the Supreme Court

Sandra Day O'Connor

© Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Although it's far from common knowledge, the appointment of the first female justice to the Supreme Court hinged on a pollster's findings and a former beau's support.


A President's Promise

According to Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, during the 1980 presidential race between Reagan, the Republican nominee, and Democratic President Jimmy Carter running for re-election, Reagan had a small lead over Carter as of mid-October. But Reagan's political strategist Stuart K. Spenser, concerned that support from female voters was slipping, wanted to close the perceived gender gap. The strategist and his boss discussed ways to win back women and the idea of naming a woman to the Supreme Court was born.


Big Pledge, Little Interest

Before any public announcement was made, some Reagan staffers questioned the decision. If the court's first vacancy was the position of chief justice, his pledge to nominate a woman would be controversial. Reagan hedged his bets; on October 14 in Los Angeles, he promised to appoint a woman to "one of the first Supreme Court vacancies in my administration." With the continuing drama of the Iran hostage crisis and a shaky economy at the time, there was little media interest in his groundbreaking pledge.


One Out of Four

Reagan won the 1980 presidential election and in February 1981 Justice Potter Stewart indicated he would retire from the Supreme Court in June. Recalling his promise, Reagan reasserted his intent to name a woman to fill the upcoming vacancy. Attorney General William French Smith submitted the names of four women for consideration. One was Sandra Day O'Connor, who had served on the Arizona Court of Appeals less than two years.

She had fewer legal credentials than the other three women on the list. But she had the backing of Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist (whom she'd dated while both were at Stanford Law School) and the endorsement of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Smith liked her as well. As biographer Cannon notes, "Mr. Reagan never interviewed anyone else."

Next page - Sandra Day O'Connor: From Hardscrabble Childhood to Trailblazing Legislator

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