Obituary: first female Supreme Court justice smashed glass ceilings

Sandra Day O’Connor testifies at a judicial hearing in September 1981. PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES
Sandra Day O’Connor testifies at a judicial hearing in September 1981. PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES
Supreme Court justice

Pragmatic and with a wry sense of humour Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman named to the United States Supreme Court, took smashing glass ceilings in her stride.

When in 1983 an apparently forgetful New York Times writer reporting on Washington referred to the "nine men" of the Supreme Court, she responded: "According to information available to me, and which I had assumed was generally available, for over two years now the Supreme Court of the United States has not consisted of nine men."

In her letter, Justice O’Connor called herself FWOTSC — "First Woman on the Supreme Court."

Whether a man or woman, Justice O’Connor’s rise to the top of the legal tree would have been an unlikely success story.

Born in Texas in 1930, Sandra Day was raised on her parents’ isolated ranch over the nearby state border in Arizona. Educated at a boarding school in El Paso and living with her grandparents, Day’s formidable intellect was soon in evidence: she graduated high school aged 16 and went to Stanford to study for a BA in economics.

After graduating in 1950 she returned to Stanford to study law, just one of five women in the class.

Despite graduating near the top of her class Justice O’Connor — who married classmate John O’Connor in 1952 — endured a string of job rejections before finally finding work in a county attorney’s office.

The couple moved to Arizona and while raising their three sons she became active in state politics. She was appointed to fill the unexpired term of a state senator in 1969 and then ran successfully to hold the seat.

She became Arizona Senate majority leader in 1973, the first woman in the country to lead a state senate. She was elected as a state trial judge in 1974 and in 1979 was named to a state appeals court.

In 1979 she met, and impressed, Warren Burger, then chief justice, who kept an eye on her. In 1980, Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan vowed to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court, a promise he set about fulfilling after his election and the retirement of Justice Potter Stewart.

His short list included Justice O’Connor, and the ranch-owning president and rancher’s daughter hit it off immediately. The Senate confirmed Justice O’Connor by a 99-0 vote and she was sworn in on September 25, 1981.

"I think the important fact about my appointment is not that I will decide cases as a woman but that I am a woman who will get to decide cases," she said soon after her confirmation.

The enormity of the reaction to Justice O’Connor’s appointment had surprised her. She received more than 60,000 letters in her first year, more than any one member in the court’s history.

Sandra Day O’Connor testifies before the Senate judiciary committee in 2012.
Sandra Day O’Connor testifies before the Senate judiciary committee in 2012.
"I had no idea when I was appointed how much it would mean to many people around the country," she once said.

"It affected them in a very personal way. People saw it as a signal that there are virtually unlimited opportunities for women. It’s important to parents for their daughters, and to daughters for themselves."

When Justice O’Connor first got to the court, she didn’t even have a place anywhere near the courtroom to go to the bathroom. That was soon rectified, but she remained the court’s only woman until 1993.

Then, much to her delight and relief, President Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the court.

Though the two women looked and sounded nothing alike, lawyers occasionally mistook one for the other, prompting the justices to get personalised T-shirts: the fronts read, "The Supremes." The back of Justice O’Connor’s shirt read, "I’m Sandra, not Ruth."

Although she was conservative by nature, Justice O’Connor became the court’s ideological centre. With pragmatism and a knack for building consensus, she controlled decisions on the most contentious issues of her era, including helping preserve a woman’s right to abortion and upholding affirmative action on college campuses.

She described her tenure as similar to walking on wet cement "because every opinion you offer, you’ve left a footprint".

Her views became more liberal with time. After expressing some ambivalence about Roe vs Wade, the 1973 decision that made abortion legal nationwide, she created a critical alliance in 1992 to affirm Roe’s central holding.

"Some of us as individuals find abortion offensive to our most basic principles or morality but that cannot control [the court’s] decision," she wrote.

She also moved her position on gay rights: in 1986 she voted to uphold a Georgia law prohibiting sexual relations between homosexuals but voted in 2003 to strike down a similar law in Texas.

Away from the courtroom, Justice O’Connor was a vocal spokeswoman to raise awareness of breast cancer, which she survived in 1988 after a mastectomy. She also highlighted the importance of research into Alzheimer’s disease, which afflicted her husband.

Justice O’Connor retired from the court in in January 2006 to take care of her husband until his death in 2009.

Justice O’Connor dedicated herself to improving civics education. In 2009, Democratic president Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour a president can give.

Subsequently, she herself was diagnosed with dementia and announced in October 2018 that she was withdrawing from public life.

She died on December 1, aged 93. — Agencies