Sandra Day O’Connor:
First Woman on the Supreme Court


Early Career

Hitting the Glass Ceiling

Although graduating near the top of her class in 1952, no law firm in California was willing to hire O’Connor as a lawyer due to her gender — not an uncommon experience among women lawyers of her generation. The only job offer she received was as a legal secretary at a Los Angeles-based firm. She persisted in her job hunt, however, and eventually contacted the County Attorney for San Mateo County, California. He told her his office was not funded to hire another deputy. “I wrote him a long letter,” recounted O’Connor, “explaining all the reasons why I thought I could do things that would be useful to him in the office.” She offered to work for nothing if that was necessary. As a result of her letter, she was offered a position as a deputy county attorney.


Bar Admission Certificate presented to “Mrs. John Jay O’Connor,” admitting her as an Attorney and Counselor of the Northern District of California, 1953. Bar Admission Certificate presented to “Mrs. John Jay O’Connor,” admitting her as an Attorney and Counselor of the Northern District of California, 1953.

While her husband was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany in 1954 with the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, she served as a civilian attorney with the United States Army Quartermaster Corps. The O’Connors moved back to the United States in 1957, settling in Phoenix, Arizona, where she was admitted to the Bar and started a neighborhood law office with a colleague in a shopping center. The O’Connors’ three sons, Scott, Brian, and Jay, were all born within the next six years. With the birth of her second son, she left the law practice to concentrate on raising her family, and became very involved in local politics and community service.


Mr. and Mrs. Harry Day (at right) pay a visit to the O’Connors in Frankfurt, Germany. Mr. and Mrs. Harry Day (at right) pay a visit to the O’Connors in Frankfurt, Germany.
Courtesy of the O’Connor Family

From Statehouse to Courthouse

In 1965, O’Connor returned to work full-time as an assistant state attorney general, while continuing to play an active role in Republican Party politics. When a seat in the Arizona State Senate became vacant in 1969, she was appointed to fill it. She was twice reelected, quickly rising in prominence.


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Pamphlets related to Sandra Day O’Connor’s campaign for the Arizona State Senate.
Pamphlets related to Sandra Day O’Connor’s campaign for the Arizona State Senate.
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Sandra Day O’Connor poses for a publicity photograph in 1969 with her husband, John J. O’Connor III, and their three sons Scott, Brian, and Jay (top to bottom).
Sandra Day O’Connor poses for a publicity photograph in 1969 with her husband, John J. O’Connor III, and their three sons Scott, Brian, and Jay (top to bottom).
Photograph by Jim Ray
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Certificate acknowledging Sandra Day O’Connor’s appointment as an assistant attorney general for Arizona, 1965.
Certificate acknowledging Sandra Day O’Connor’s appointment as an assistant attorney general for Arizona, 1965.
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Badge worn by Senator Sandra Day O’Connor as an alternate delegate to the 1972 Republican National Convention.
Badge worn by Senator Sandra Day O’Connor as an alternate delegate to the 1972 Republican National Convention.

 

In 1972, she became the first woman in the nation to hold the post of majority leader in a state legislature. As a legislator, O’Connor worked towards changing various state laws that discriminated against women. She helped repeal a 1913 Arizona statute prohibiting women from working more than eight hours a day, which had been used to prevent women from seeking and keeping jobs. In addition, O’Connor sponsored legislation giving women equal responsibility in managing property jointly held with their spouses.

In 1975, she ran successfully for trial judge on the Maricopa County Superior Court, a position she held until 1979 when Governor Bruce Babbitt appointed her to the Arizona Court of Appeals. Committed to strengthening the role of women in the American judicial system, she supported the foundation of the National Association of Women Judges, established the same year.


Formal group photograph of Judge O’Connor and her colleagues on the Arizona Court of Appeals, c. 1979. Formal group photograph of Judge O’Connor and her colleagues on the Arizona Court of Appeals, c. 1979.
Invitation to Sandra Day O’Connor’s swearing in ceremony at the Arizona Court of Appeals. Invitation to Sandra Day O’Connor’s swearing in ceremony at the Arizona Court of Appeals.

 

 

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