Supreme Court of the United States

In Re Lady Lawyers:
The Rise of Women Attorneys and the Supreme Court


Sandra Day O’Connor

“It’s fine to be the first, but you don’t want to be the last.”

— Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, 2003

 

The Early Years

Future Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was born on March 26, 1930, to cattle ranchers on the New Mexico-Arizona border. Her childhood on the 198,000-acre ranch shaped her formative years. She helped her parents maintain the land and learned to endure a rugged desert life, without electricity or indoor plumbing. In 1946, at the age of 16, she graduated from high school and began study at Stanford University. She continued her studies at Stanford Law School, where she was one of only five women in the incoming class. Finding employment after law school was difficult as very few women entered the professional workforce during that time. She eventually worked for free as a deputy county attorney in the San Mateo County Attorney’s Office.

 

Sandra Day riding one of her favorite horses, Chico, on the Lazy B Ranch. Sandra Day riding one of her favorite horses, Chico, on the Lazy B Ranch.
Courtesy of the O’Connor Family
Sandra Day at age 16, 1946. Sandra Day at age 16, 1946.
Courtesy of the O’Connor Family

In the late 1950s, O’Connor and a friend opened a law firm in a shopping center in Phoenix, Arizona. O’Connor and her husband became active in local politics and community organizations, which helped lay the groundwork for her later election as a state senator.

 

The First Woman Supreme Court Justice


President Ronald Reagan with Judge Sandra Day O'Connor on the day he announced her nomination from the White House Rose Garden, July 15, 1981. President Ronald Reagan with Judge Sandra Day O’Connor on the day he announced her nomination from the White House Rose Garden, July 15, 1981.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library


A few days after Associate Justice Potter Stewart retired in July 1981, President Ronald Reagan announced his intention to nominate O’Connor, fulfilling his campaign promise to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court. O’Connor said at the time of her nomination, “I happily share the honor with millions of American women of yesterday and today whose abilities and conduct have given me this opportunity for service.” She took the Oaths of Office to become a Justice on September 25, 1981.


“The power I exert on the Court depends on the power of my arguments, not on my gender.”

— Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, 1990


View the slideshow of images from Justice O’Connor’s appointment below.

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Invitation to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's Investiture Ceremony.
Invitation to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s Investiture Ceremony.
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Chief Justice Warren E. Burger administers the Judicial Oath to Judge Sandra Day O'Connor while her husband, John J. O'Connor, holds the family Bibles.
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger administers the Judicial Oath to Judge Sandra Day O’Connor while her husband, John J. O’Connor, holds the family Bibles.
Photograph by Michael Evans, The White House
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Justice Sandra Day O'Connor signs her oaths of office in the Justices' Conference Room alongside Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor signs her oaths of office in the Justices’ Conference Room alongside Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.
Photograph by Michael Evans, The White House
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The Burger Court in the Justices' Conference Room on the day of Justice O'Connor's Investiture.
The Burger Court in the Justices’ Conference Room on the day of Justice O’Connor’s Investiture.
Standing, from left: Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Thurgood Marshall, William J. Brennan, Jr., Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Byron R. White, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, and John Paul Stevens.
Photograph by Bill Fitz-Patrick, The White House
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Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Chief Justice Warren E. Burger on the day of her investiture, September 25, 1981.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Chief Justice Warren E. Burger on the day of her Investiture, September 25, 1981.
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Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and President Ronald Reagan on the day of Justice O'Connor's Investiture, September 25, 1981.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor with Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and President Ronald Reagan on the day of Justice O’Connor’s Investiture, September 25, 1981.
Photograph by Mary Ann Fackelman, The White House
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The 1981 Burger Court, October 28, 1981.
The 1981 Burger Court, October 28, 1981.
Seated, from left: Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan, Jr., Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, and Justices Byron R. White, and Harry A. Blackmun. Standing, from left: Justices John Paul Stevens, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, and Sandra Day O’Connor.
Photograph by Robert S. Oakes, National Geographic Society
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Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 1981.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, 1981.
Photograph by Robert S. Oakes, National Geographic Society
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Informal group photograph of the Burger Court taken in February 1982.
Informal group photograph of the Burger Court taken in February 1982.
Standing, from left: Justices John Paul Stevens, Thurgood Marshall, William H. Rehnquist, Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, and Lewis F. Powell, Jr.
Photograph by Robert S. Oakes, National Geographic Society


Justice O’Connor authored 675 Supreme Court opinions in her career. In a 2005 interview, she remarked that “being a member of the Court is a little like walking through fresh concrete… We look back and we see those opinions we’ve written and they’ve sort of hardened after us.” Justice O’Connor retired on January 31, 2006, after nearly 25 years of service on the Court.



 

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