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.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

11 Life Lessons From Alexander Hamilton

If you’re looking to the Founding Fathers for a role model, you could do worse than Alexander Hamilton, the self-taught orphan from the Virgin Islands who went on to create the U.S. financial system, the Coast Guard, and, in a break from politics, The New York Post. Inspired by the hit musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda—which will premiere on the streaming service Disney+ July 3—author Jeff Wilser dug through the prolific Hamilton’s documents and letters, as well as those of his colleagues and biographers, to create Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life, a tome full of wisdom from everyone’s favorite treasury secretary.

Here are 11 life lessons you can learn from Alexander Hamilton (excluding the best advice of all, which is “don’t duel”):

1. Genius comes from hard work.

“Men give me some credit for genius,” Hamilton once told a friend (at least according to later reports). “All the genius I have lies in this, when I have a subject in hand I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. I explore it in all its bearings. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.”

Hamilton’s absurd work ethic was a theme throughout his life—over the course of a few months, he wrote 51 essays included in The Federalist Papers (compared to James Madison’s 29 and John Jay’s five). He did it all while keeping his day job, working full time as a lawyer.

2. Don't procrastinate.

A prolific writer, Hamilton didn’t let little things like sleep get in his way. In 1791, Congress was in an uproar over whether a national bank would be constitutional. George Washington had only 10 days to decide whether to veto the controversial bill that came before him. Hamilton—with the help of his wife, Elizabeth (often called Eliza)—stayed up all night and dashed off some 40 pages in favor of the bill, rebutting anti-bank arguments from men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Hamilton could always be counted on to get his work done on time, if not early. “I hate procrastination,” he wrote in a letter in 1795.

Indeed, when Congress demanded a complete audit of his books in 1792 to check for corruption, Hamilton was required to present a detailed survey of the financial system he created, including balances between the government and the central bank and a tally of purchases of government debt. He was given a deadline just four months away, but he managed to whip up a 21,000-word report that he turned in two weeks early. (The numbers checked out.)

3. Marry rich.

In a letter to his friend John Laurens written when he was 22, Hamilton shows more than a passing interest in landing a sugar mama. Discussing what he would require in a future spouse, he mentions money multiple times, saying in one instance, “as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better … money is an essential ingredient to happiness in this world—as I have not much of my own and I am very little calculated to get more either by my address or industry—it must needs be that my wife, if i get one, bring at least a sufficiency to administer to her own extravagancies.” Though he may have been joking around a bit, the man was pragmatic to a fault.

4. Don't fight for a cause you don't believe in.

As a lawyer, Hamilton was occasionally asked to defend behavior he didn’t really condone. He took no issue with defending British soldiers who were prosecuted for crimes they committed during the Revolutionary War's occupation of New York City because he felt that the law was on their side. But in a case early on in his career, he defended someone he knew to be guilty and came to regret it: He successfully defended a woman who had stolen a fan. “I will never again take up a cause in which I was convinced I ought not to prevail,” he later decided.

5. Don't take on debt you can't pay.

Despite being a crusader for the national debt, Alexander Hamilton wasn’t always a proponent of borrowing money. “The creation of debt should always be accompanied by the means of extinguishment,” he argued in 1790 during his campaign to have the U.S. federal government assume states’ debt from the war. In other words, debt is all good and fine—as long as you have a way to pay it back.

6. Look sharp.

Alexander Hamilton wouldn’t have been caught dead in athleisure. “A smart dress is essential,” he declared in a 1799 letter. He was talking about soldiers—he raised America’s first standing army and personally designed George Washington’s uniform during the Quasi-War between the U.S. and France from 1798 and 1800—but the advice applies to any endeavor. As a self-made man, Hamilton was all about dressing for the job you want.

7. Don't forget to spend time with your family.

While he was busy helping a fledgling nation come into its own, Hamilton still found time to be a family man. (He and his wife, Eliza, had eight children.) “Experience more and more convinces me that true happiness is only to be found in the bosom of one’s own family,” he wrote to Eliza in 1801. According to his family doctor, in the midst of his business as a statesman, whenever someone in his family got sick, Hamilton rushed home to nurse them back to health—literally; he insisted on administering all the medicine himself.

8. Don't let the haters get to you.

Hamilton was a famously divisive figure. While he was a beloved adviser to George Washington, he was loathed by some other Founding Fathers. In 1790, he encouraged George Washington to raise a militia to stamp out the Whiskey Rebellion—ultimately a peaceful end to the tax conflict—but it wasn’t a popular stance. “The very existence of government demands this course,” he maintained. Taxes were the only way to pay off the government’s then-$54.1 million federal debt.

He was right, but that didn’t mean the public or his fellow politicians agreed. Thomas Jefferson called the whole thing “Hamilton’s Insurrection.” Luckily, he never treated government like a popularity contest (even if he did have that dueling problem). “I have learned to hold popular opinion of no value,” he wrote to Washington in 1794.

9. Embrace adversity.

Alexander Hamilton was never too far from conflict, as the Whiskey Rebellion incident underscores. His greatest accomplishments—the creation of the U.S. banking system, founding what would become the U.S. Coast Guard, encouraging the manufacturing industry—turned out to be visionary, but weren’t readily accepted by contemporaries like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams. But he saw conflict as a time to shine: “A man of real merit is never seen in so favorable a light as through the medium of adversity; the clouds that surround him are shades that set off his good qualities,” he wrote in a letter to a friend in 1780.

10. Honor your commitments.

Hamilton considered his word his bond, in both politics and his personal life. In a letter to his then-9-year-old son, Philip, in 1791, he wrote that “a promise must never be broken, and I will never make you one, which I will not fulfill as I am able.”

11. Forgive your enemies.

Following his ultimately fatal duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton lay in bed in intense pain for several hours before he finally passed away. As Wilser tells it, he took one of his final moments to absolve his opponent. “In one of Hamilton’s final lucid moments, he said, ‘I have no ill will against Colonel Burr … I met him with a fixed resolution to do him no harm. I forgive all that happened.’” Even in moments of great pain, he maintained his integrity.