Over the summer I had the wonderful opportunity to present at the virtual conference Intelligent Speech. The theme of the conference was crossings and so I selected a woman from history who crossed gender lines: Sandra Day O'Connor.
The first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court, O'Connor helped pave the way for the women who came after her. But just who was O'Connor? And why was she so polarizing during her tenure? Tune in to find out!
Barabak, Mark Z. “The architect of Reagan’s pledge to put a woman on the Supreme court says it was all political.” Los Angeles Times. Feb 1, 2022. (LINK)
Dullea, Georgia. “Women as Judges: The Ranks Grow.” New York Times. April 26, 1984. (LINK)
“How Groups Voted in 1980.” Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. Cornell University. (LINK)
Ronald Reagan, Governor Reagan's News Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project (LINK)
Committee Hearings for the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor. (LINK)
Ruelas, Richard. “Arizona Lazy B Ranch taught Sandra Day O'Connor some of life's most important lessons.” Arizona Republic. March 15, 2019. (LINK)
Thomas, Evan. First: Sandra Day O'Connor. United States: Random House Publishing Group, 2019.
Hey everyone. Welcome back.
A few months ago I had the distinguished honor to present at the Intelligent Speech online conference. The theme of the conference was crossings and I knew I wanted to touch on someone or something from history that crossed a line and broke new ground. To that end, I selected the life of the first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor.
If you weren’t able to make it to the conference, then you may be happy to learn that today I am sharing the audio from that presentation. The conference was held the day after the Dobbs decision which effective overturned Roe v Wade. I touch on this in my opening remarks, but for the sake of all you out there, wanted to make sure I warned you too. Given who I was discussing, I could see no way of altering or otherwise minimizing that portion of the presentation without doing an injustice to her life and legacy.
So just who was Sandra Day O’Connor? Let’s find out, shall we?
Hey peeps, my name is Alycia and I am the host of the weekly U.S. History podcast Civics and Coffee. Welcome to Time for a Woman: Sandra Day O’Connor & The Supreme Court.
Before I begin I wanted to take a moment to recognize the events over the last twenty four hours here in the United States. When I decided to talk about Justice O’Connor my aim was to review the life and career of the woman who broke the gender barrier of the highest court in the land and, in her own understated way, pave the way for those who came behind her.
As I will share, she had a tremendous impact and influence on the court, including the now overturned Planned Parenthood v Casey decision in 1992. I understand for some of you, it may be hard to listen to right now. I debated whether to make edits to the presentation, but ultimately decided to go forward as is. I hope you stay and learn about this trailblazing woman, but understand if you aren’t ready yet. Without further delay, let us begin.
On April 7th, Ketanji Brown Jackson made history with her confirmation to the Supreme Court as the first black female justice in the nation’s history. When she begins her term in October, she will be the sixth woman to answer to the title Justice. As historic as her appointment is, it would not be possible if not for the groundbreaking work done by the very first woman to hold the role, Sandra Day O’Connor.
On June 21st, 1981, the Arizona Republic, the state’s largest daily newspaper, featured an article titled Time for a Woman discussing the potential for a woman to be seated on the highest court in the land thanks to a campaign promise made by newly elected president Ronald Reagan. The article highlighted that in the court’s nearly two hundred year history, it welcomed 101 justices, all of whom were men.
The author argued it was high time for a woman to be elevated to the highest court in the land; apparently, Reagan agreed. On September 21st, 1981 Sandra Day O’Connor made HERstory when she was confirmed as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.
So who was Sandra Day O’Connor? Why was she selected to the court? And what was her impact?
As I like to say, grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
While I am going to focus on O’Connor’s time as Associate Justice, let’s start with a little background. Sandra Day was born March 26, 1930 in El Paso, Texas to parents Harry and Ada Mae. Her father was a cattle rancher and oversaw a nearly 200,000 acre tract of land in the Arizona desert.
The ranch, known as the Lazy B, was largely untouched by civilization; the home Sandra grew up in did not have things like electricity or running water until she was 7. Regardless of how rustic it may have been, O’Connor enjoyed her time on the ranch where she learned how to change a tire, shoot guns and drive before most children knew how to ride a bike. Her time at the Lazy B would stay with her throughout her life, prompting her to write a book with her brother about their experiences later in life.
However, the ranch was miles from town and local schools were lacking. To give their daughter the best education possible, the Day’s made the difficult decision to send Sandra to El Paso to live with her maternal grandmother. Being separated from her family and the Lazy B was painful for Sandra who successfully lobbied her parents to allow her to attend a school closer to home. Shortly after the new school year began, she realized her mistake and returned to El Paso after only a year.
A bright and inquisitive young woman with a photographic memory, Sandra enrolled into Stanford University at just 16 years old where she majored in Economics. After graduating with top honors in 1950, Sandra decided to pursue a legal career, entering into the University’s law school saying quote: “I want to lead an interesting life - I want to study, practice law, and experiment with all such things,” end quote. While at Stanford, Sandra was quite popular with the young men, who outnumbered the female students three to one. A number of young lads vied for her affections and she was proposed to several times, including one proposal from future Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. However, Sandra had already fallen for the man who would become her biggest champion and partner in life, John O’Connor.
The two were wed in December, 1952 just a few months after Sandra graduated from law school. A newly minted lawyer and wife, O’Connor went about trying to secure herself a position at a law firm. However, despite graduating near the top of her class, she was unable to generate any interest in her skills, with many firms telling her they simply weren’t hiring female lawyers. The only firm to offer her a position limited their offer to a legal secretary. Not to be deterred, O’Connor took an unpaid position with the San Mateo County District Attorney’s office, eventually earning a salary once she proved her legal abilities.
The couple moved to Germany in 1954 after her husband was drafted; while overseas, Sandra worked as a civilian attorney. Upon their return to the United States in 1957, O’Connor set up shop in Arizona. She remained in private practice for eight years before going to work as the state’s Assistant Attorney General. In 1969, she was appointed to the state’s senate before being elected to the position in 1970.
While serving in the state senate, she became the majority leader, the first woman to serve in the role in any state. She began her judicial career in 1975 where she served until 1979 when she was elevated to the state’s court of appeals. While a judge for Maricopa county she often received low marks given her conduct with the attorneys appearing before her. O’Connor was very matter of fact and focused on maintaining a clean docket; this was different from what the attorney’s were used to.
On October 14, 1980 then-candidate Ronald Reagan announced he would appoint a female to the Supreme Court should he be elected. Hosting a press conference which purportedly aimed to clarify his stance on women’s equal access, Reagan reviewed his record as Governor on women’s issues and highlighted how much representation mattered. To achieve this goal Reagan said quote "I am announcing today that one of the first Supreme Court vacancies in my administration will be filled by the most qualified woman I can possibly find. One who meets the high standards I will demand of all court appointments. It is time for a woman to sit among the highest jurists.” end quote.
Though a commendable decision, Reagan’s motivations weren’t altruistic. Struggling in the polls with women given his opposition to abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, Reagan hoped his announcement would rally more female voters to his side. This seemed to do the trick; though Reagan won in a elective landslide in the 1980 election, he also slightly outpaced Carter when it came to female voters, with women voting for Reagan 47% to Carter’s 46%.
Given that it was a campaign promise, no one really expected Reagan to follow through, including his inner circle of consultants. It became evident Reagan would have an opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court justice just months into his first term as the result of the retirement of Potter Stewart. Many advisors suggested he go with conservative jurist Robert Bork. But Reagan stayed true to his words, reportedly saying quote, “I promised to have a woman on the Supreme Court. Now, if there are no qualified women, I understand. But I can’t believe there isn’t one,” end quote. Citing the 1980 Census, a New York Times article estimated of the almost twenty-eight thousand judges on the bench, only 4,762 of them were women. That equates to roughly 17%, which fell far below the 51% of the population they made up according to the same census.
Several women were considered; from well-known Republican operatives to Federal Courts of Appeals Judge Amalya Kearse. Also included, of course, was one Sandra Day O’Connor who was then serving on the Arizona Court of Appeals. O’Connor had no federal experience, an issue she sought to remedy by diving into studying ahead of her confirmation. O’Connor had support from influential members of the government, with former beau and sitting associate justice William Rehnquist praising her abilities to Attorney General William Smith and Chief Justice Warren Burger chatting with White House Counsel. Burger, who had met O’Connor in 1979, was quite taken with her and shared he felt she would be a good addition to the list of names under consideration.
Moving quietly, a team of Reagan advisors flew down to Arizona to get a sense of who this appellate judge was and whether she would pass confirmation hearings. This reconnaissance involved an interview with O’Connor herself where she was asked if the court should reverse past decisions, a not so subtle question about the status of the 1973 decision Roe v Wade. Striking a balance that would become her calling card, O’Connor stated she felt the court’s role was to interpret, not make, laws but occasionally it could be appropriate for the court to reverse itself. After journeying to D.C to complete her internal vetting process, Reagan announced his pick on July 7, 1981.
Upon hearing of her selection, O’Connor reportedly told her husband quote, “This will change our lives.” His response? She had to do it.
O’Connor’s confirmation, the first Supreme Court confirmation hearing to ever be televised, began on September 9th, 1981 and was the most sought after event for journalists. Requests for press passes surged past those requested during the Watergate Committee hearings just a decade earlier. While there was intense interest in getting to know who the first woman of the court was, not all were happy to see her in the hot seat. Many anti-abortion activists, led by individuals like Jerry Falwell, felt O’Connor was pro-abortion and went after her record, falsely claiming she voted multiple times for unlimited abortions.
Strum Thurmond, a conservative Republican Senator from South Carolina and chair of the Judiciary Committee asked O’Connor to discuss her personal and judicial philosophy on abortion. While she admitted to being personally against the idea of abortion, she let it be known that a judge’s role in determining any case had to rely on the facts of the particular situation and be devoid of any personal feelings.
The hearings, which lasted three days, were discussed heavily on the nightly news. Everyone waited to see if the first woman ever nominated to the Supreme Court would succeed in earning confirmation. On September 21st, in a vote of 99 to 0, O’Connor did just that. She was now an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
But what did that even mean?
O’Connor began her first term on the court on September 28, 1981. There was no new hire orientation or guidebook to figure out what needed to be done and when. In a journal entry, O’Connor wrote quote: “the court is large, solemn. I get lost,” end quote. The first order of business was to determine which cases the court would hear for the upcoming term. In her first year on the bench, the court heard 167 cases and in a preview of what was to be the cornerstone of her career, O’Connor had the pivotal vote as her colleagues were deadlocked. She would be the deciding vote over 300 times while serving on the Supreme Court.
As the first woman on the court, O’Connor knew she was under a tremendous spotlight and could not afford to make any mistakes. She was cordial and deferential to her male colleagues, winning them over with her western girl charm. Her fellow justices seemed guarded, but otherwise receptive to her position on the bench. O’Connor’s former beau, William Rehnquist, kept his distance, lest anyone accuse him of clouded judgment. However, their dating history was well known and Rehnquist received a bit of ribbing from a fellow justice who quipped, No Fooling Around. O’Connor received some sixty thousand letters, more than any other justice in history. While some of the letters were supportive, more than a few were critical of O’Connor and her sex - with one demanding she return to her home and kitchen and let the men make the decisions for the country.
One of the first tangible impacts she made on the court was just how attorney’s would address the individuals sitting on the bench. Prior to O’Connor’s appointment, those arguing in front of the court referred to the men as Mr. Justice. Now that they weren’t all men, attorney’s were unsure of how to address the court. Should O’Connor be Mrs. Justice? Madam? Should the men have a different title? Eventually they landed on Justice - without the gender pronoun - which continues to this day.
Though she never considered herself a feminist, O’Connor was aware of the impact of having a female justice on the court. She strove to be equal in her hiring decisions, selecting law clerks of varying backgrounds, including disabled individuals and attempted to hire conservative and liberal clerks in equal measure. She also balanced the gender of her clerk team, hiring equal ratios of men and women.
Her communication with her clerks was respectful, though demanding. While other justices had a reputation for berating clerks, O’Connor would never raise her voice, instead she would clearly articulate her expectations in her notoriously clear diction. But she also refused to be a withering flower; as one former clerk observed quote, “Sandra is the only woman I know who doesn’t say sorry. Women would say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that.’ She would just say, ‘No,’” end quote.
O’Connor’s appointment came at a time when the country, and by extension the court, was wrestling with various social justice issues; were women and members of the gay community eligible to receive the same protections provided to black americans under the 14th amendment? In 1973, the court referenced the amendment as providing a guarantee of privacy for women in Roe v Wade. Did this work across the board?
It was as a result of these hot button issues, things like women’s access to reproductive healthcare and affirmative action, that helped cement O’Connor as a centrist jurist. She was unable to please everyone; in fact during her tenure she often frustrated those on the left and the right. The right felt she was betraying her appointment by a conervative President by focusing too narrowly on her decisions. Those narrow opinions, the left argued, proved she was an indecisive judge.
Though she presided over more than a thousand petitions, O’Connor is perhaps best known for two key votes. Planned Parenthood v Casey from 1992 and the infamous Bush v Gore decision in 2000. The main issue at hand in Casey was whether the restrictions put in place by the Pennsylvania legislature violated the protections guaranteed by Roe. O’Connor, who had long taken issue with what she classified as an arbitrary trimester system, put her mark on the court by instituting a new method of determining a law’s impact on women: undue burden. In O’Conor’s eyes, states were allowed to place restrictions on access to abortion as long as it did not pose an undue - or unreasonable - burden on those seeking access to the service. In reading the opinion from the bench in 1992, O’Connor stayed true to the tenet she espoused during her vetting and confirmation hearings saying quote: “Some of us as individuals find abortion offensive to our most basic principles of morality but that can't control our decision.
Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code,” end quote.
This opinion was divisive across the country. While pro-choice advocates criticized the ambiguity of undue burden, anti-abortion advocates felt it failed to fully overturn Roe. For O’Connor, it was a limited opinion meant to buy the country some time to figure out just where it wanted to go.
O’Connor was not known for second guessing past decisions, but she later admitted her regret in the case of Bush v Gore, which was used to stop the 2000 presidential election ballot recount. The case was the result of an immediate petition by the Bush campaign to put a stay on the lower court’s decision to force a recount on certain ballots cast in Florida. In a decision that remains controversial to this day, the Supreme Court not only took the case, but decided - in what on the surface appeared to be a partisan decision - that the counting of ballots should cease and the original certification of Bush as the winner of electoral votes should remain.
O’Connor was aware no matter the decision, roughly half the country would accuse her of playing politics. In her assessment, there was no pathway to victory for Gore given the looming safe harbor deadline of December 12th to certify the election results. As she saw it, the recount would not be done in time, throwing the election into a chaotic frenzy that appeared to be slanted towards Bush anyway. Once decided, she refused to discuss her thoughts on the case, but when asked if she had regrets about the decision in 2017, she responded with quote “I’m sure I did, but second thoughts don’t do you a lot of good. It looks like a party-line vote, I know,” end quote.
Finally, in 2005, O’Connor announced she would resign her seat on the court once a replacement was confirmed. Her husband John, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's almost a decade prior, was in need of her assistance and she was determined to be the dutiful partner and care for him in his time of need. After a protracted process, wherein Chief Justice William Rehnquist passed away, creating another opening on the court, Samuel Alito was confirmed by the Senate and O’Connor left the bench in 2006. She served more than twenty four years.
A passionate lover of civics and history, O’Connor decided to focus her time in retirement in building the knowledge and skills of school children, launching a nonprofit, iCivics, in 2009. The aim of the organization is to get young americans interested in civics and understand the function of government. On their website, iCivics quotes O’Connor as saying, “the practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned by each new generation.”
O’Connor was nothing if not practical. While she understood how important her role was as the first woman to serve on the court, she never played into the notion that she was somehow cheated given her sex. Her practicality can be seen in her opinions while on the bench, where she reviewed the facts of each individual case and sought to find the most common ground in her decisions. However, she was also an astute politician and knew her gender held a certain amount of influence on how she carried herself and what it meant for the future of other women.
A centrist at a time when the country was becoming increasingly polarized, many who criticized O’Connor during her tenure were quick to wish for the return of her pragmatism. I think it was her unassuming, centrist approach that helped pave the way for future Supreme Court nominees like Justice Ginsburg and Sotomayor. She proved that women were capable of making the tough decisions and could withstand the political pressures of one of the most demanding jobs in public service.
However, I think O’Connor’s legacy is best summed up in her own words. In a 1990 speech regarding women in power, O’Connor said “For both men and women, the first step to getting power is to become visible to others, and then to put on an impressive show. As women achieve power, the barriers will fall. As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things, and we’ll all be better off for it.”
Thanks peeps - I will now gladly open up our session for questions.
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.