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Sandra Day O'Connor, First Woman on the Supreme Court

Profile of O'Connor's Rise From Cowgirl to Supreme Court's First Female Justice

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Sandra Day O'Connor, First Woman on the Supreme Court © Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
O'Connor's charm belied the hardscrabble life of her early years. Born March 26, 1930 in El Paso, Texas, O'Connor grew up on an isolated ranch in southeastern Arizona without electricity or running water, where cowboys taught her how to rope, ride, shoot, repair fences and drive a pickup. With no school nearby, O'Connor went to live with her maternal grandmother in El Paso to attend a private academy for girls, graduating at age 16. O'Conner credits her grandmother's influence as a factor in her own success.

An economics major at Stanford Univerity, she graduated magna cum laude in 1950.

 

Legal Wrangling Led to Law School

A legal dispute involving her family's ranch prompted her to go to Stanford Law School, where she finished the three-year program in two. There she met her future husband John Jay O'Connor III, made the Stanford Law Review and the legal honor society. Out of a class of 102, she graduated third behind William H. Rehnquist, whom she briefly dated and who would later become chief justice of the Supreme Court.

 

No Room in the Old Boys' Club

Despite her class ranking, no law firm in the state would hire so she went to work for San Mateo, California as a deputy county attorney.

When the Army drafter her husband she followed him to Frankfurt where she was a civilian lawyer in the Quartermaster Corps. Afterward, they moved to Phoenix, Arizona in 1957, where O'Connor again received little interest from established law firms, so she started to start her own with a partner. She also became a mother, giving birth to three sons in six years and only stepping away from her practice after her second son was born.

 

From Mother to Majority Leader

During her five years of full-time motherhood she became involved with the Arizona Republican Party, and returned to work as an assistant state attorney general of Arizona.

Subsequently appointed state senator to fill a vacant seat, she was elected for two more terms and became majority leader - the first woman to do so in any state legislature in the U.S. She moved from the legislative branch to the judicial when she was elected to serve as judge on the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1974. In 1979 she was nominated to the Arizona Court of Appeals and in 1981 to the Supreme Court.

 

Not "A Wasted Nomination"

Although her Senate confirmation was unanimous, she was criticized for her lack of federal judicial experience and constitutional knowledge. Conservatives regarded her nomination as a wasted one. Liberals believed she was not supportive of feminist issues. Yet over a 24-year career on the bench, she proved detractors on both sides wrong as she firmly established herself as a centrist and moderate Conservative who took a pragmatic approach to the most divisive issues of the day.

Her ascension to the highest court in the land also had one small side benefit to women - "Mr. Justice," the form of address previously used in the Supreme Court, was amended to the more gender-inclusive single word "Justice."

 

Health Concerns

In her seventh year on the bench, Justice O'Connor was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, missing two weeks of work. She was so annoyed by the constant inquiries about her health that in 1990 she released a statement saying, "I am not sick. I am not bored. I am not resigning."

Her bout with cancer was an experience she did not publicly discuss for a number of years. Finally, a speech in 1994 revealed her frustration with the attention the diagnosis brought, the ongoing scrutiny of her health and appearance, and the media speculation over the possibility of retirement.

 

A Husband's Illness

It was not her own health but the health of her husband that forced her to step down. Diagnosed with Alzheimer's, John Jay O'Connor III had become increasingly dependent on his wife as his disease progressed. It was not uncommon to find him resting in her chambers while she was at court. Married for over 50 years, the 75-year-old O'Connor announced her decision to retire on July 1, 2005, after 24 years on the Supreme Court in order to care for her husband.

Next page - Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Confronting Sex Discrimination Personally and Professionally

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