How Sandra Day O'Connor Beat the Odds, Ruled the Court, and Became the Most Powerful Woman in America

CORBIS
CORBIS

Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recently announced that she is withdrawing from public life. In 2016,

Mental Floss magazine profiled how the Arizona cowgirl rose to become the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, transforming a 191-year-old all-boys’ club and paving the way for female lawyers across the country. 

 

By Lizzie Jacobs

Sandra Day O’Connor’s desk was a mess. The day before, on September 25, 1981, she had been sworn in as the first woman on the Supreme Court. Her new office was already littered with briefs and cert requests. Not to mention nearly 10,000 missives from citizens across the nation—packages of hand-knit socks, family pictures, homemade fudge. Then there was the hate mail. “Back to your kitchen and home female!” read one letter. “This is a job for a man and only he can make rough decisions.”

The insults didn’t faze her. Neither did more pragmatic concerns, including the fact that nobody had ever thought to place a women’s restroom near the courtroom—because for 191 years, only men had sat on the Supreme Court. The closest ladies’ room required O’Connor to walk down an endless hallway. So she commandeered a nearby restroom instead.

O’Connor also took ownership of another boys’ room: the basketball court above the courtroom, jokingly called “the highest court in the land.” She wanted to exercise, and after she heard that other women in the building—secretaries and a few lone female clerks—did too, she reserved the gym and asked the local YWCA to send an aerobics teacher. She even ordered custom T-shirts that read Women Work Out at the Supreme Court. The class became a daily ritual.  

By the end of her first month, Sandra Day O’Connor had done more than break the Supreme Court’s glass ceiling—she’d stolen its spotlight. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, she wrote opinions that shaped major social and political issues, making decisions that led Tom Goldstein, a Supreme Court expert and founder of SCOTUSblog, to call her “one of the five most influential justices of the century.” The fact that this Arizona cowgirl was the first woman on the court, he says, is “more of an asterisk.”

How she got there, however, is another story.



In this photo from O’Connor’s scrapbook, she’s about 10, on her family’s Lazy B ranch near Duncan, Arizona. CORBIS

It was a hot day on the Lazy B ranch when 15-year-old Sandra Day learned how to change a tire. Her father, H.A. Day, and his ranch hands were tending to cattle far from home, where Sandra was loading a pickup truck with the crew’s supplies and lunch. She left at 7 in the morning—plenty of time to reach the cowboys by mealtime—and drove into the desert alone.

The sun was rising. Sandra’s grandfather had bought this 250-square-mile stretch of windswept desert straddling the Arizona–New Mexico border in 1880. Fifty years later, when Sandra was born, the family lived in a one-bedroom house with no running water, eking out a living repairing wells and raising cattle. Their closest neighbor was 25 miles away.

Driving over dirt and sand, the Chevy was more rickety than usual. Sandra stopped, hopped out, and noticed that a rear tire had pancaked. She figured out how to jack up the car, grabbed a lug wrench, and twisted the lug nuts as hard as she could. They wouldn’t budge. Rusted. Watching the sun rise higher in the sky, she propped her foot on the wrench and began jumping until the rust cracked.

Sandra reached the roundup well past lunchtime, and the men were branding cattle. She explained that she had woken up early, that she’d had a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, that the lug nuts were rusted tight, that she was lucky to be there at all.

It sounds like a triumph, but her father was unimpressed. “You should have started a lot earlier,” he said. That was the end of their conversation. No excuses.

Living alone with a bunch of cowboys in the middle of the desert breeds a certain type of pragmatism. For Sandra, days on the ranch could begin lying on her back reading Nancy Drew and end with the mercy killing of a calf. She rode horses, drove tractors, branded cattle, shot .22-caliber rifles, and tamed a pet bobcat (named Bob). When she lay in bed at night, she listened to coyotes. “We were ranchers,” O’Connor recalled in a 2008 speech at Stanford. “We didn’t know lawyers or judges.”

Sandra joined her father and his ranch hands on roundups, steering cattle and spending nights without a pillow or bathroom in sight. In her memoir, Lazy B, she wrote, “It had been an all-male domain. Changing it to accommodate a female was probably my first initiation into joining an all-men’s club.” Soon, her younger sister and niece rode along without objection.

The ranch, however, was no formal education, so Sandra’s parents sent her to an all-girls’ private school in El Paso, Texas, where she lived a double life with her maternal grandmother. There, she rubbed shoulders with society girls and their families, learning about the right clothes, ice cream socials, and graceful houses. Knowing how to don a lavender suit with a perfect bob gave the Western gal a polished finish that made her, in the words of Eric Citron, a future clerk, “One of the most enchanting people you will ever meet in your entire life.”

At 16, after skipping two grades, Sandra entered Stanford University. She majored in economics, but a law professor, Harry Rathbun, changed her life. Each Sunday, Rathbun invited students into his home to discuss the meaning of life, making passionate arguments that each individual had a civic duty to serve his or her community. Sandra was struck. She’d spent her life as a self-reliant cowgirl, miles from the closest town. Now, she felt an obligation to serve. “He was the most inspiring teacher I ever had,” she said. After graduating, the 20-year-old applied to Stanford Law School. She was admitted, just one of four women in her class.

“I had no understanding then about the almost total lack of opportunities for women in the legal profession,” she’d say. “Had I realized how hard it would be to get a job as a woman lawyer, I would have chosen another path.”

Women have been symbols of justice

since the Egyptian goddess Ma’at, but men have kept the scales of justice from them for just as long. By O’Connor’s time, a statue of Lady Justice adorned most courthouses, but actual lady justices—or even lady lawyers—were still very much unwelcome.

It started in 1869, when Myra Bradwell attempted to become America’s first female lawyer. She passed the Illinois bar exam, but the state supreme court refused to give her a law license. When Bradwell brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1872, she lost. The justices deemed that “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life,” and described a woman seeking such a career as “repugnant.”

For the next seven decades, states could legally deny women the opportunity to practice law—and did. (Charlotte E. Ray, the first black female lawyer, was admitted to the Washington, D.C., bar in 1872 because she went by her initials and the committee assumed she was a man.) At the turn of the century, famed lawyer Clarence Darrow told a group of woman attorneys, “You have not a high grade of intellect ... I doubt if you [can] ever make a living.”

Things began to change by World War II, when a shortage of men prompted qualified women—many of whom had settled for jobs as legal librarians, stenographers, and secretaries—to obtain jobs at law firms. Some law schools saw this as a problem. When Harvard president James B. Conant was asked how the law school was handling the shortage, he crowed, “We have 75 students, and we haven’t had to admit any women.” By 1950, only three percent of lawyers were women.

Sandra Day paid no attention. She was too busy excelling in law school, where she edited the Law Review and ranked third in her class. After graduating in 1952, she realized history was stacked against her: Firms refused to interview a woman. When she finally snagged an interview with California’s Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, one partner asked her, “Miss Day, how do you type?” He was offering her a secretarial job, which she declined.

When Sandra heard that the district attorney of San Mateo County had hired a woman in the past, she visited the office and asked for a job. The county attorney waved her off, saying there were no vacancies. Sandra insisted she’d work for free. They didn’t have enough desks, he protested. She later got the job—with no pay—because she convinced the secretary to share desk space with her.

After marrying John O’Connor, whom she met at Stanford, Sandra briefly worked in Germany, then moved to Phoenix to open a small walk-in law practice in a suburban strip mall, the kind of place where customers came in unannounced to complain about grocery bills and shifty landlords. It wasn’t prestigious, but it kept her in the game.

Then her babysitter quit.

In those days, having children was career suicide. But in O’Connor’s case, it was the best move she ever made.

“Small children need supervision day and night,” she wrote mental_floss in an email. “With two little children I needed to be ‘at home’ with them.” She stayed “at home” for about six years—while volunteering for enough civic and community groups to fill a couple of lifetimes.

O’Connor served on the Maricopa County Board of Adjustment and Appeals and the Governor’s Committee on Marriage and the Family, chaired the Maricopa County Juvenile Detention Home Visiting Board, and was an administrative assistant at the Arizona State Hospital. She wrote questions for the Arizona bar exam, volunteered at a school for minorities, worked as an adviser to the Salvation Army, and acted as district chair for the local chapter of the Republican party.

All that (and more) while practicing a little law on the side. And raising three boys.  

Politicians noticed. Those connections helped O’Connor—who still could not get hired at a private firm—earn a part-time job at the attorney general’s office, where she climbed her way up to assistant attorney general. Her work impressed Arizona’s governor so much that he selected her to fill a vacant seat in the state senate. Within months, her Republican colleagues voted her majority leader, making O’Connor America’s first female majority leader of a state legislature.

O’Connor knew what she wanted: to remove sexism from the books. She searched for laws biased against women and quietly worked to change them. The Republicans had a razor-thin majority—negotiations were essential. She regularly hosted parties at her adobe house, inviting leaders from all sides to eat homemade burritos, not to broker deals, but to get to know one another.

Her cooking was legendary, but at work she was all business. “With Sandra O’Connor, there ain’t no Miller Time,” one colleague quipped. She was just as fastidious, if not nitpicky, as a stateswoman. (One time she introduced an amendment to remove a single misplaced comma from a bill.) She hit the second shift of motherhood hard. Once, when a budget deadline loomed, a fellow legislator moaned that it would be impossible to reach a compromise before midnight. O’Connor insisted they would finish by 6 p.m.: Her son was leaving for summer camp, and she wanted to be home in time to bake cookies before he left. It worked.

In 1975, O’Connor won a judgeship in Maricopa County, where she built a reputation as a no-nonsense taskmaster who followed the law to the letter, even when it conflicted with her beliefs. In one case, she sentenced a woman to five to 10 years in prison for passing $3,500 in bad checks. The woman’s husband had abandoned her, and the jail sentence meant the state would take her children. After ruling, O’Connor cried in her chambers.

In the spring of 1981, President Ronald Reagan learned that Justice Potter Stewart was resigning. Months earlier, as he campaigned for the presidency, Reagan had courted women voters by promising to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court. When his advisers tried to talk him out of it, pointing to the dozens of available men for the job, Reagan insisted. A promise was a promise.

In April 1981, two Reagan staffers flew to Phoenix to meet with the candidate, who presented them with a salmon mousse and a stunning knowledge of constitutional jurisprudence. Dazzled, they invited her back to Washington to meet with the president.

Reagan’s earliest ranches may have been Hollywood sets with plywood saguaros and stunt horses, but he was a sensible westerner at heart. O’Connor told Reagan’s staff she’d meet them in front of a drugstore, wearing a lavender suit. Once they met, they talked about horse riding and life on ranches. Afterward, he refused to meet with anyone else.

Ruth McGregor, who became O’Connor’s first clerk, remembers hearing about the nomination on the radio: “I was, like most women in law, literally overcome. I was driving my car and had to pull over to the side because I just burst into tears.” Though religious conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly and Jesse Helms tried to sink the nomination on the grounds that O’Connor would uphold Roe v. Wade, the Senate confirmed her with a record-setting 99-0. The Supreme Court, 191 years old, had gone coed.


Sandra Day O’Connor broke through to become the first woman on the supreme court in September 1981. CORBIS

The fame was suffocating.

“I had never expected or aspired to be a Supreme Court justice,” O’Connor said in the Deseret News in 1988. “My first year on the court made me long at times for obscurity.” She tried to answer every letter she received, even the countless invitations from Washington socialites. She and her husband were happy to dance the night away, but the learning curve was so steep that she had to ditch the dance floor (and sleep) to read briefs and edit opinions.

O’Connor knew she needed to establish herself as a jurist. “Eternally a ranch girl, she wanted solutions that really worked and had little patience for esoteric theory that had no grounding in reality,” recalls O’Connor clerk RonNell Andersen Jones in a SCOTUSblog retrospective. Advocates before the court were guaranteed that O’Connor would ask the first question, and it “would be overwhelmingly practical,” Goldstein said. Her fellow justices ritually asked how an argument squared with legal precedents, but O’Connor wanted to know how it affected people.

“A wise old woman and a wise old man will reach the same conclusion,” O’Connor says, but she acknowledges she brought experiences that her brothers on the court didn’t have. She was a key vote on cases about gender equality. In Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, for example, she decided that a women’s state nursing college couldn’t exclude men, knowing that letting men into a traditionally female profession would probably bring about higher salaries.

She became famous for her narrow opinions, which avoided creating broad, sweeping rules of law that might lead to new injustices. Even when voting for the majority, she often wrote concurring opinions that made the majority’s decision less broad. (In one voting rights case, she wrote a concurring opinion to her own opinion.) The philosophy distinguished O’Connor as unpredictable. Unless she had encountered a similar case before, it was hard to know what she’d decide. By the 1990s, with consistent blocs to her left and right, she was the deciding vote.

“She wouldn’t have felt her vote was any different than anyone else’s vote,” Citron says. Indeed, O’Connor was the glue of the court. “She knew you have to talk—it’s not a question of talking about the court stuff, you have to know people,” recalls NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. She set up regular lunches with the justices and took her clerks and staff out hiking, fly-fishing, and white-water rafting. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999, O’Connor was the first person to call her in the hospital. She reached out to the community, too: In 2001, she made a guest appearance at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre to bring King Lear to trial. (The verdict? “Not mad.”)

Retired since 2006, O’Connor sees the current trio of lady justices as her legacy, but her footprint is vastly larger. “We really can’t exaggerate how much it affected things,” McGregor says. “This was still a time in the legal profession where women were regarded as not capable … Once someone is a member of the Supreme Court and is doing the job well, it’s really hard to argue that women aren’t qualified.” The statistics don’t lie. Today, the ratio of women to men studying law tickles 50 percent. Women make up about 33 percent of lawyers and 27 percent of state judges. While the numbers aren’t equal, O’Connor kicked the door wide open so that one day, they may be.  

This story appeared in March/April 2016 issue of mental_floss magazine: 54 Powerful Women Who Changed the World.

10 Surprising Facts About Richard Nixon

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

Often maligned but rarely boring, Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was the nation’s 37th president and the first to resign from office. Although his involvement in the Watergate break-in scandal tends to overshadow much of his life, there was more to Nixon—who was born on January 9, 1913—than his political improprieties. Check out some facts about his early law enforcement aspirations, why he got criticized for commenting on Charles Manson, and his infamous encounter with RoboCop.

1. Richard Nixon was a Quaker.

Also known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers have roots in 17th century England and promoted pacifism and spiritual equality among genders at a time those thoughts were not in fashion. When Nixon’s father, Frank, married Quaker Hannah Milhous, he joined a Quaker congregation and the couple raised their children as Quakers. Nixon’s religious faith allowed him an exemption from serving in World War II, but he waived it to enter the Navy. Later, when he was facing impeachment for his role in Watergate, Quakers in Milwaukee and Minneapolis apparently didn’t like the affiliation with the outcast president, petitioning for him to be removed from office months before he resigned.

2. Richard Nixon wanted to join the FBI.

A photograph of Richard Nixon's 1937 FBI application
Brendan Smialowski, Getty Images

In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine Nixon’s mannered disposition fitting comfortably in the stiff-necked legion of G-men that populated J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A little over a month before graduating from law school, Nixon applied to the Bureau in 1937, when he was just 24. After an in-person interview and physical, Nixon waited for a response. He never got one. Later, when Nixon was in office as vice president and queried Hoover about why he had not been accepted, Hoover told him it had been due to budget cuts.

3. Richard Nixon wrote love notes to his wife-to-be.

Nixon met his wife, Patricia, while the two appeared in a 1938 Whittier Community Players theater production titled The Dark Tower. Nixon set about courting her, writing letters that seemed uncharacteristically maudlin for the future president. He wrote: “And when the wind blows and the rains fall and the sun shines through the clouds (as it is now) he still resolves, as he did then, that nothing so fine ever happened to him or anyone else as falling in love with Thee – my dearest heart.” The two married in 1940.

4. A dog helped save Richard Nixon's political career (for a little while).

A family portrait of the Nixons and their dog, Checkers
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Controversy dogged Nixon early on. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower considered dropping Nixon as his vice-presidential running mate after allegations surfaced that Nixon was benefiting from a trust fund filled by his supporters to help offset his political and personal expenses. Going on radio and television to address the issue, Nixon cleverly slipped in an anecdote about his 6-year-old daughter being in love with a cocker spaniel named Checkers that had been “donated” by a campaign supporter. Believing that any man who loved dogs couldn’t be all bad, the public sentiment turned and he remained on the ticket.

“It was labeled as the ‘Checkers speech,’ as though the mention of my dog was the only thing that saved my career," Nixon later wrote. "Many of the critics glided over the fact that the fund was thoroughly explained, my personal finances laid bare, and an admittedly emotional but honest appeal made for public support."

5. Richard Nixon literally made the mornings darker.

In 1973, to save fuel during an energy crisis, Nixon signed a law that mandated that daylight saving would be in effect year-round starting on January 6, 1974. But kids wound up waiting for their school buses in pitch-black conditions, and there was a fear they might get hit by traffic—so the idea was scrapped in 1975.

6. Richard Nixon had a bowling alley installed under the White House.

Richard Nixon in the bowling alley at the White House in 1971
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nixon, an avid bowler, was pleased to see that the love of bowling that inspired Harry Truman to build lanes in the White House in 1947 was still going strong when he took office in 1969. That alley was moved in 1955, and Nixon actually ordered that a new lane be built underground under the North Portico entrance and favored the new location because it was more private than the lanes that were open to other staffers. Nixon reportedly bowled a respectable 232.

7. Richard Nixon wanted the Secret Service to wear uniforms.

The president’s security detail is usually dressed for business: Suits, ties, and sunglasses are the normal attire for many agents, while those patrolling the White House grounds wear police-style uniforms. When Nixon took office, however, he wanted his men to resemble the palace guards he had seen in other countries. The Service assigned to his personal detail wore white double-breasted tunics and hats that vaguely resembled the Empire’s underlings in a Star Wars film. After he was criticized by the press, Nixon abandoned the idea and the outfits were eventually donated to a high school marching band.

8. Richard Nixon almost messed up Charles Manson's murder trial.

Richard Nixon frowns during a public appearance
AFP/Getty Images

Nixon’s first year in office coincided with the national obsession over cult leader Charles Manson and his followers, some of whom had gone on a murder spree in 1969 that left actress Sharon Tate and several others dead. During Manson’s trial in August 1970, Nixon proclaimed Manson “was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.” Manson’s lawyers moved for a mistrial based on Nixon’s comments. The president quickly retracted his statement, with a spokesperson suggesting he neglected to include the word “allegedly.”

9. Richard Nixon met RoboCop.

In 1987, Nixon attended a national board meeting for the Boys Club of America. Also on hand to fete organizers and kids was a guy dressed as Robocop. (The unknown actor was definitely not Peter Weller, star of the 1987 feature, and the ill-fitting costume was definitely not the original.) For years, an image of the meeting circulated on the internet without context before a crack sleuth determined it had been snapped for Billboard magazine.

10. Richard Nixon's meeting with Elvis Presley made National Archives history.

Richard Nixon greets Elvis Presley at the White House in 1970
National Archives/Getty Images

On December 21, 1970, Nixon greeted one of the more colorful characters to ever enter the White House: Elvis Presley. The singer apparently wanted a badge or other token of law enforcement; as the King was high on fighting the war on drugs at the time. (Unfortunately, Presley had drug issues of his own that may have contributed to his death in 1977.) A photo of the meeting between the two is (as of 2015) the most requested image in the National Archives, outpacing requests for the moon landing, the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights.

Tennessee Politician Wants to Replace State Capitol Statue of Confederate General With Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton performs on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1991.
Dolly Parton performs on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1991.
Paul Natkin/Getty Images

The Tennessee Capitol currently displays eight busts of historical figures, including Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and founding member of the Ku Klux Klan. According to artnet News, Forrest made a fortune as a slave trader before the war, and is now mostly remembered for leading 1864’s Fort Pillow Massacre, during which his troops killed hundreds of black Union soldiers who were trying to surrender.

Though some people argue that Forrest's later support of racial harmony justifies keeping his statue in the Capitol, Republican representative Jeremy Faison thinks it’s time to honor someone else—he’s suggesting Dolly Parton, a Tennessee native known for songs like “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” her Tennessee theme park, Dollywood; and, of course, her illustrious country music career.

He’s open to other ideas, too, but he thinks it should be a woman. Right now, all eight of the busts belong to men.

“My daughter is 16, and I would love for her to come into the Capitol and see a lady up there,” Faison told the Tennessean. “What’s wrong with Anne Dallas Dudley getting in that alcove?” Dudley, a Nashville-born suffragist, helped Tennessee become the final state to ratify the 19th Amendment.

Faison is a relatively new voice advocating to replace Forrest’s controversial bust; he originally felt that it should keep its place in the Capitol, since Forrest is a part of history. However, after Representative G.A. Hardaway encouraged him to delve into Forrest’s ideology, Faison decided Forrest’s role in history could be remembered and studied without granting him a place of honor in the state Capitol. Instead, he thinks the bust should be relocated to a museum.

nathan bedford forrest
Nathan Bedford Forrest
Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

There are about 50,000 signatures on a petition calling for Tennessee governor Bill Lee to move Forrest’s bust, but it could still take a while for Tennesseans to see a bronze Dolly Parton in the Capitol. Before any action is taken, the State Capitol Commission and the Tennessee Historical Commission would have to vote on a resolution, and no such resolution has been introduced yet.

[h/t artnet News]

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