On September 21, 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female Supreme Court Justice. The moderate conservative Republican became a key swing vote in many cases, including decisions that upheld women’s rights.
Born in 1930 in El Paso, TX, O’Connor received her undergraduate degree and law degree from Stanford University. Even though she graduated third in her class at Stanford Law, it was slim pickings in the job market for female lawyers. After she struggled to land a paid position, O’Connor worked without pay for the San Mateo county attorney to get her foot in the door. She managed to quickly work her way up to deputy county attorney. In her early years, she worked overseas and at a private practice. She became Arizona’s assistant attorney general from 1965-1969 and then landed a judgeship in 1974, earning a reputation for her firm yet fair rulings. In 1979, she was selected to serve on Arizona’s court of appeals only to be nominated by President Reagan two years later for the open seat on the Supreme Court. O’Connor was unanimously approved by the Senate.
As a Supreme Court Justice, O’Connor pleased liberals with many of her votes related to women’s rights. She upheld a woman’s right to choose, when she voted to uphold the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and a woman’s right to birth control, providing the swing vote to uphold the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey case. She also voted to protect against sexual harassment. Although she broke ranks with her fellow Republicans in these cases, her votes often reflected her conservative ideology.
After retiring from the Supreme Court in 2006, O’Connor still plays an active role in educating Americans, young and old, about civics. By serving on the highest court in the land, she made an important step for all professional women looking for equal respect in the workplace… and her most direct legacy is the three female justices in the Supreme Court today: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.