Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice on the US Supreme Court, faced a mix of admiration and skepticism when her successor was nominated, with her historic appointment in 1981 carrying the weight of expectations throughout her 26-year term. Despite being a self-professed “cowgirl from the Arizona desert,” O’Connor, a conservative justice, had to continually prove her worth against gender biases.
Quoting O’Connor’s sentiments, “Good in every way, except he’s not a woman,” encapsulated her ambivalence toward her successor. This echoed her consistent effort to demonstrate that she was not just as good as men but also an advocate for women’s rights, a balancing act she accomplished with political acumen gained as a Republican activist and state senator.
While ideologically a moderate, O’Connor often held the decisive swing vote in a sharply divided Supreme Court. Her consequential votes spanned contentious issues such as abortion rights and the disputed 2000 presidential election. As a trailblazer for gender equality, O’Connor paved the way for the second female justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, earning the title of the “queen of the court.”
O’Connor’s upbringing on Lazy B, a cattle ranch in the Arizona desert, shaped her independent and hard-working character. Despite facing gender bias in her legal career, she navigated through challenges, even setting up her own legal practice when law firms wouldn’t hire women. A brief hiatus to focus on family was followed by a remarkable return to public life, with O’Connor breaking gender barriers in Arizona’s Senate.
Her journey to the Supreme Court aligned with President Ronald Reagan’s commitment to appoint the first woman to the bench. O’Connor’s nomination was supported by Justice William Rehnquist, her old flame, and she secured an emphatic 99-0 confirmation vote. She became a symbol of progress for women but was also known for her pragmatic approach on legal matters.
O’Connor’s tenure saw her as a core member of the conservative bloc, but she later broke ranks on matters of equality and civil rights. Notably, in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v Casey, she joined a majority in affirming Roe v Wade, a decision that conflicted with her personal views on abortion. However, her legacy was tarnished by the controversial Bush v Gore decision in 2000, where she voted to halt legal challenges, putting George W. Bush in the White House.
Upon her retirement in 2006, O’Connor dedicated herself to a second career focused on civic education. She expressed regret for leaving the court, but her efforts, including the iCivics initiative, left a lasting impact on educating young Americans. In 2018, O’Connor revealed her diagnosis of the beginning stages of dementia, emphasizing her gratitude for a fulfilling life.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s legacy extends beyond her role as the first woman on the Supreme Court. Her impact on gender equality, constitutional law, and civic education reflects a genuine desire to be a good person and do good things. As she expressed at her confirmation hearings, she hoped her tombstone would read, “Here lies a good judge.”