Sandra Day O’Connor: Breaking the High Court’s Glass Ceiling

On September 25, 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in as the first woman member of the Supreme Court.

That distinction alone would have earned her a place in the American history books. But Justice O’Connor also proved to be memorable for several of her judicial opinions, which had far-reaching consequences. For example, she was the pivotal vote in Bush v. Gore, which resolved Florida’s disputed presidential election results and decided the presidential election of 2000.

Though generally conservative in her opinions, O’Connor would occasionally show an independent streak when she sided with the court’s more liberal judges. She provided the crucial swing vote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, which upheld the Court’s earlier opinion in Roe v. Wade.

In our 1985 article, “Her Honor: The Rancher’s Daughter,” writer Joan S. Marie presents a more personal side of O’Connor, including the morning aerobics classes she organized at the Supreme Court, stories of her childhood on an Arizona ranch (bobcat included), and the antics of Family Olympics Day. Typical of “working woman” profiles of the era, Marie spends as much time showing how O’Connor managed her family as she did her caseload, and even works in a recipe (crab enchiladas).

But O’Connor’s determination to excel at her profession shines through. She shares how hard she had to work to even get into the legal profession. When she graduated from law school in 1952, she had difficulty even finding work because no law firm was interested in hiring a woman. She eventually opened her own law firm, became Arizona’s assistant attorney general, a state senator, a superior court judge, and a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals. In 1981, the call came from the Reagan White House.

In the 1985 article, O’Connor anticipated that America would soon see more women on the bench: “In our law schools today, at least half the students are women. I fully expect to see the percentages of women in the practice reflected in the roughly similar percentages on the bench and in other activities in which lawyers are generally engaged. So I certainly do think we are going to see that reflected — not only here but in judicial offices across the nation.”

O’Connor served on the Supreme Court for 25 years, until her retirement in 2006. She was the first woman Supreme Court justice, but, of course, she wasn’t the last. Clinton nominee Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Obama nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan followed in her path.


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Click to read “Her Honor: The Rancher’s Daughter,” by Joan S. Marie, from the September 1, 1985, issue of the Post.

Featured image: Sandra Day O’Connor being sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1981 (White House Photographic Office, National Archives)