Groundbreaker

34 years ago today, Sandra Day O’Connor took an oath that changed the world

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Sandra Day O’Connor was 51 years old in 1981, the year she became the 102nd United States Supreme Court justice. As the first woman to serve on the tribunal, she was sworn in to the office in front of President Ronald Reagan and some 400 other people by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, who later asked a crowd, “You’ve never seen me with a better looking justice, have you?” O’Connor was a conservative groundbreaker who got her start as an elected official and judge in Arizona and the first female Majority Leader in the U.S. as the Republican leader in the Arizona Senate. During her time on the Supreme Court, she became the key swing vote in a number of important cases. It was her vote that swung to integrate a women’s-only nursing school in 1982, to uphold Roe vs. Wade in 1992 and, in 2000, to end the recount of presidential votes in Bush vs. Gore, allowing George W. Bush to serve his first term as president. She made one of the nation’s most esteemed “old boys’ clubs” her own, serving 24 years on the bench before her retirement in 2006. O’Connor, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2009, is also a breast cancer survivor who underwent a mastectomy in the late 1980s. Since she became the nation’s first Supreme Court justice, powerful women have followed O’Connor to the bench. Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined her as a justice in 1993, followed by Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in 2009 and 2010, respectively. She’s kept busy since retirement as the head of the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute, but when visiting her former place of work, O’Connor told Jon Stewart that she still makes a point to meet with the other justices for lunch. Oh, to be a fly on that wall!

Read the coverage from the day Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in at New York Daily News.

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