Before Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman Supreme Court justice, she was a cowgirl growing up on an Arizona cattle ranch during the Great Depression. Dubbed “Lazy B,” the unspoiled stretch of land she called home lay at the state’s edge, seeping into New Mexico. As O’Connor wrote in her memoir, “It was no country for sissies.”
The eldest of three children, O’Connor took on practical ranching responsibilities not typically performed by women. She ventured out with her father to participate in cattle roundups as the group’s only girl rider, later recalling, “Changing [the task] to accommodate a female was probably my first initiation into joining an all-men’s club, something I did more than once in my life.”
O’Connor, who spent nearly 25 years on the bench of the nation’s highest court, casting decisive votes in cases that would affect millions, died Friday, at age 93, of complications related to advanced dementia and a respiratory illness. The ranch duties of her youth indeed preluded a career of firsts, in which she broke into less bucolic legal and political settings governed by a different kind of exclusivity. Before her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1981, the moderate conservative spent years in state government, touring all three branches, and she remained committed to states’ rights throughout her judicial career.
During her time in Washington, D.C., however, O’Connor’s rulings often fell not to the right, but firmly in the center. In several key cases, she cast the “swing vote”—a term she thought frivolous—after compromising with other justices to ensure protections for affirmative action and abortion, among other issues. Throughout her career, she embodied the priority that guided her philosophy: not her own ideas about morality, but rather a fair interpretation of the Constitution.
From the horse to the gavel
O’Connor was born Sandra Day on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas. (She later attended school in Texas, as educational opportunities were lacking around Lazy B.) She excelled academically from a young age and was accepted into Stanford University, where she began studying in 1946, at age 16. After graduation, she enrolled at Stanford Law School—one of 5 women in a class of 112—where she was inducted into the Order of the Coif, a prestigious legal honorary society, and served on the Stanford Law Review’s editorial board. There, she met fellow board member John J. O’Connor III, and the couple married in 1952. But after graduating near the top of her class that year, O’Connor couldn’t find a job.
“Large firms were not hiring women,” says Lisa Kathleen Graddy, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. At one firm, Graddy adds, O’Connor interviewed for a job as a lawyer, only to be offered a position as a legal secretary instead.
Eventually, O’Connor secured a position as a deputy county attorney in California’s San Mateo County after writing a persuasive letter to the office. In 1954, she took her legal talents to Germany: While her husband served in the army in Frankfurt, O’Connor worked as a civilian attorney with the United States Army Quartermaster Corps. After the couple’s move to Phoenix in 1957, O’Connor took the bar exam, then started a neighborhood law office with a colleague.
She eventually left the practice to focus on her family, and while raising her three sons, she became increasingly involved in local politics. In 1965, she decided to return to the workforce as an assistant state attorney general. A few years later, in 1969, she was appointed to fill a vacant Republican seat in the Arizona State Senate. She served five years in the body—twice winning re-election—and became the nation’s first female majority leader of a state senate. In 1975, O’Connor moved back to the courtroom, serving as a trial judge on the Maricopa County Superior Court until 1979, when Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt appointed her to the Arizona Court of Appeals. O’Connor’s last stint in state government lasted until 1981, when Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart retired from the bench, and President Ronald Reagan’s men came knocking.
O’Connor’s ascent to the highest court
During Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, he had promised to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court, “striving to refute charges that he is insensitive to women’s rights,” as the Washington Post reported at the time. In 1981, scouts from the White House began interviewing potential candidates for the nomination, and by July, Reagan had announced his choice. Soon after, O’Connor faced the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held hearings to assess her qualifications.
The hearings were a “huge media event,” wrote Evan Thomas, author of First: Sandra Day O’Connor, for Smithsonian magazine in 2019. “There were more requests for press credentials than there had been for the Senate Watergate Committee hearings in 1973.”
For three days, O’Connor testified “before middle-aged men who seemed not quite sure whether to interrogate her or open the door for her,” according to Thomas. Her views on abortion were highly publicized, as she told suspicious conservative lawmakers that while she abhorred abortion and would never have one herself, she had tolerance for other views. She was ultimately confirmed, with 99 votes in favor and none against. With the press whirlwind over, it was time to get to work. O’Connor now carried not only the great responsibility of a judge on the nation’s highest court but also the weight of representation.
“It’s all right to be the first to do something, but I didn’t want to be the last woman on the Supreme Court,” O’Connor said in 2012. “If I took the job and did a lousy job, it would take a long time to get another one, so it made me very nervous about it.”
To ensure that other women would follow her, the new justice had to be “confident and unemotional,” says Graddy, to “disprove every stereotype that anyone’s going to throw out there about what a woman on the court would be like.”
O’Connor seemed naturally suited to that task; she was “a pistol, completely shaped by her youth on a ranch,” says Stefanie Lindquist, a legal and political science scholar at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.
“She was self-reliant, and she believed in personal responsibility,” adds Lindquist. “She was really a neat woman.”
As Lindquist points out, O’Connor was no wallflower. Throughout the quarter-century she spent on the Supreme Court, her willingness to approach, collaborate and compromise with other justices was imperative to the outcomes of numerous cases.
Notably, O’Connor was a co-author of the majority opinion for a 1992 case in which Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania opposed new restrictions on abortion in the state, then governed by Robert P. Casey. These laws mandated a 24-hour waiting period, as well as parental consent or spousal notification, before an abortion. The Supreme Court essentially needed to decide whether to uphold Roe v. Wade, the 1972 case that protected abortion under the constitutional right to privacy. O’Connor had never been satisfied with Roe’s outcome, which split abortion restrictions by trimesters of a pregnancy, but she didn’t want to see the end of abortion rights, Lindquist says. In the opinion for the Planned Parenthood case, O’Connor and two fellow justices laid out a new standard: fetal “viability,” or the point at which the fetus can survive outside the womb (about 23 weeks).
“She cobbled together a standard,” Lindquist says, one that rejected Roe’s trimester framework, instead opting to “look at viability as the critical point” and restrict states from imposing an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to choose before that point. What classifies as an undue burden was left open to interpretation, a fact that Lindquist criticizes. But through the creation of this standard, O’Connor struck a balance; she pulled conservative Justice Anthony M. Kennedy toward three liberal justices, allowing the left-leaning group to win.
“That was her brilliance,” Lindquist says. “She was able to bring together this group of people—moderates and liberals—to perpetuate the constitutional right to abortion.”
O’Connor brought similar methods of compromise to the bench when affirmative action was on the chopping block in 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger. As the swing vote, she swung left, opting to keep the policy legal but inserting a time limit on it. As Andrew McBride, one of O’Connor’s former law clerks, told Thomas, “She didn’t like affirmative action, though she was the one to save it.”
“A liberal justice might say, ‘Affirmative action now; affirmative action forever,’” Lindquist explains. “A conservative justice would say, ‘Never affirmative action.’ What she said was, ‘OK, affirmative action, but we expect to see it over in 25 years,’ again finding a middle ground.”
To O’Connor, every case that came before the Supreme Court was its own entity, and she preferred to analyze it within its own scope, as it related to the Constitution, not to justices’ interpretation of ideals. In 1987, journalist Bill Moyers asked O’Connor if she would declare something legally improper because she found it morally improper. “No,” she replied, citing an “overriding obligation up here to enforce and apply and support and defend the Constitution. That’s what we’re here to do.”
A background in state government
Even while serving on the nation’s highest court, O’Connor never lost touch with her roots in state government. The years she spent in Arizona’s government, especially in the state legislature, reinforced her federalist mindset. She felt protective of states’ rights.
Coming from Arizona’s Senate, “she would have been more sensitive to the impact of her decisions on real people,” says Lindquist. “She wrote policies and implemented policies that had direct impact on real people.” As a result, “whenever there was an issue of scope of federal power under the U. S. Constitution, she was inclined to view the scope of federal power narrowly.”
“I’m a product of state government,” O’Connor told Moyers. “And I think that it is appropriate that we try to preserve strong and capable state governments. Because I still tend to believe that the best government is that government closest to the people.”
O’Connor exhibited her distaste for federal government overreach in 1987’s South Dakota v. Dole. That case reached the court after South Dakota refused to change its legal drinking age from 19 to 21. Congress, wanting all states to have a standardized legal drinking age of 21, threatened to withdraw 5 percent of South Dakota’s federal highway funding. The court found in favor of Congress, with O’Connor and one other justice in the minority. The majority decided the potential loss of highway funds was not unduly coercive, but O’Connor felt the federal government was infringing upon the state’s right to set its own drinking age.
“She always was very concerned about line of sight from a voter to the responsible legislature,” says Lindquist. “States’ rights and government accountability and electoral accountability … were principles that guided her decision-making.”
The Supreme Court’s only woman
When O’Connor joined the Supreme Court, it had been an all-male institution for nearly 200 years. Since 1800, justices had been wearing the long black robes still customary today. O’Connor cherished the symbolism of the tradition: In a 2013 essay for Smithsonian, she wrote, “It shows that all of us judges are engaged in upholding the Constitution and the rule of law. We have a common responsibility.” But her respect for the uniform didn’t hold back some alterations. The American History Museum now houses O’Connor’s judicial attire, which reveals its wearer’s unwillingness to simply blend into the court’s historic masculinity.
“You look at [the robe], and you think, ‘It’s short. Why is it short? She’s tall,’” says Graddy. “She had hemmed it. … Hers is hemmed so that you see a little bit of skirt, because this is the first justice in a skirt. … It indicates that she was a woman.”
The museum also owns one of O’Connor’s jabots, decorative, scarf-like garments that hang from the base of the neck. Made of white lace—a traditionally feminine fabric—the pleated frills catch the eye in photos of the court, contrasting the justice with her tie-clad counterparts.
More recently, the museum collected several items from O’Connor’s office at the justice’s invitation. Among them was a football gifted to O’Connor by athlete John Riggins after he acted poorly at a dinner in Washington. By all accounts, Riggins drank copious amounts of wine that night before telling O’Connor, “Come on, loosen up, Sandy, baby, you’re too tight.”
“She did not find [this] amusing,” says Graddy. “And he brought her a signed football and flowers, by way of apology. … I love the fact that she kept the football on display in her office,” Graddy adds, because on one hand, it shows a gracious acceptance of an apology and a funny story. “On the other, isn’t it an incredible, tangible reminder of the things that women go through? That powerful women can still go through?”
O’Connor brushed off that interaction. As Thomas writes, during her first year on the court, she received about 60,000 letters, more than any justice in history. One said, “Back to your kitchen and home, female! This is a job for a man, and only he can make tough decisions.” Other envelopes included nude photos from angry men.
The justice knew these criticisms were petty in the face of over a century of impenetrable barriers for women in the legal profession. Back in 1873, the Supreme Court heard the case of Myra Bradwell, who passed the Illinois bar exam but was denied the right to practice on account of her being a married woman. Finding against her with an 8-1 majority, the court’s concurring opinion read in part, “The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother.”
O’Connor told Moyers she felt a kinship with Bradwell, saying, “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for what those other women had done.” When the second woman to sit on the Supreme Court, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was appointed in 1993, O’Connor was “the most welcoming,” Ginsburg recalled. “Sandra was as close as I came to having a big sister.”
O’Connor disappointed some feminists of the era, who hoped she would bring more concrete, widespread victories for women. Instead, she interpreted cases narrowly, Moyers said. The justice hesitated to pin down her chief case-to-case influences, be they legislative experience or feminist insights, but said that her nomination—which the National Organization for Women’s president called a victory for the women’s movement—was indeed a “symbolic change of some significance to women,” in that her presence on the court opened a door.
“[Women] want … to feel that the opportunities are there for them, at all levels of economic life, and political life, and social life in America,” O’Connor told Moyers. “Of course they want that acceptance. And so as women, we all tend to be happy and applaud when we see another woman achieve something of significant success.”