American Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor born on this day in 1930.
As Women’s History Month comes to a close, today marks the birthday of Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed her to the court. O’Connor sided with conservative court members on most issues. But on some other issues, such as church-state separation, gender discrimination, and an individual’s right to privacy, O’Connor often provided the “swing vote” that brought the court’s majority in line with a liberal reading of the law.
Sandra Day was born in El Paso, Texas, on March 26, 1930. She was the daughter of Harry and Ada Mae Day. Popular songs of the time included “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” a fashionable tune from the musical film of the same name, and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Herbert Hoover was president. A stock market crash the previous October marked the start of an economic downturn that would become known as the Great Depression. Mahatma Gandhi, in India, had begun a 200-mile (320-kilometer) march to protest a British monopoly on salt. Later that week, Turkey’s largest city became known as Istanbul, not Constantinople.
Sandra Day spent her early childhood on the Lazy B, her family’s ranch near Duncan, Arizona. “I didn’t do all the things the boys did,” she said, “but I fixed windmills and repaired fences.” Having to take on difficult chores by herself helped give young Sandra a sense of independence and self-reliance. Her mother was a college graduate who ensured that the family valued education, as well. When Sandra was 14, she and her family visited every state capital west of the Mississippi River. She completed high school while living with a grandmother in El Paso, and she entered Stanford University at the age of 16. She received her bachelor’s degree in 1950 and law degree in 1952. Sandra married John J. O’Connor III, a fellow Stanford law student, in 1952. The couple had three sons.
After graduation, Sandra Day O’Connor had a difficult time finding work as a lawyer. “I interviewed with law firms in Los Angeles and San Francisco,” she recalled, “but none had ever hired a woman before as a lawyer, and they were not prepared to do so.” But O’Connor did not give up, and she eventually found work as a deputy county attorney. In 1959, she started her own law practice. In 1965, she became an assistant attorney general in Arizona. In 1969, she was appointed to the state Senate, and she later won election to successive terms. In 1972, O’Connor became the first American woman to serve as majority leader in any state Senate. In 1974, she was elected a superior court judge in Arizona’s Maricopa County. In 1979, the governor appointed her to the Arizona Court of Appeals, the second highest court in the state.
In June 1981, Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart announced that he would retire from the court. In July, President Reagan nominated O’Connor to replace Stewart. “She is truly a person for all seasons,” Reagan said, “possessing those unique qualities of temperament, fairness, intellectual capacity, and devotion to the public good which have characterized the 101 brethren who have preceded her.” On Sept. 21, 1981, O’Connor was confirmed with a 99 to 0 vote from the United States Senate. She was sworn in four days later as the 102nd justice in the high court’s history. As an associate justice, O’Connor demonstrated the independent spirit and commitment to fairness that she had learned growing up on the Lazy B Ranch. She retired from the court in January 2006.
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