“The power I exert on the court depends on the power of my arguments, not on my gender.”
– Sandra Day O’Connor
If you didn’t know any better, you might think that the first woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, aka the “notorious RBG.” The 85-year-old justice is an icon to be sure. A documentary about her life was released earlier this year, which CNN also aired, and a biopic on Ginsburg is due out this Christmas. She is a trailblazing female attorney that argued historic cases for gender equality rights, long before President Bill Clinton appointed her to the high court. But, some may forget that the first woman Supreme Court Justice was Sandra Day O’Connor. And because she retired in 2006, a new generation of young female lawyers and activists might overlook her historic impact on the court. Considering her recent health announcement, I think it’s time for women like me who grew up in awe of O’Connor to make sure the next generation of women know who she is and why she matters so much in our present day.
Justice O’Connor was more conservative than Justice Ginsburg is, and quieter and more understated than Ginsburg for sure. But, O’Connor was every bit as much as trailblazer as her iconic colleague, and every bit as tough. We should study her and embrace her, too. Without Justice O’Connor, we might not have retained affirmative action, the right for a woman to choose her own reproductive outcomes, and so much more that this fierce daughter of the American West preserved with her votes on a decidedly conservative all-male court.
In our current national climate of division and anger, in our post-Justice Kavanaugh world of sexual misconduct accusations, “Me Too” and “white male privilege,” America can use an icon like Justice O’Connor as a role model for the future. Her announcement this past week that she now suffers from a form of Alzheimer’s (or dementia) was heartbreaking to us all who remember her appointment to the court in 1981. For me, it was particularly sad because, as an 8th-grade student at the time, I was inspired to want to become the nation’s first black female Supreme Court justice as a result of O’Connor’s ascent to the top court. It’s an ambition that I abandoned long after being admitted to the bar in 1995, yet one that, ironically, is still possible for some young black woman jurist out there as no black woman has yet to occupy a seat on the high court.
Justice O’Connor hails from humble roots. She is a rancher’s daughter from Arizona, a woman born at a time when women did not often get an education and attend law school. She was at the top of her class at Stanford, and like Justice Ginsburg could not land a job. She faced discrimination and humiliation, but she endured. Women like O’Connor and Ginsburg understood “Me Too” long before it was born. They had to live with it, and deal with it, if they wanted to keep the jobs they fought long and hard to land. O’Connor could not find a job when she graduated at the top of her class from Stanford Law (the same class as former Chief Justice William Justice Rehnquist), when she finally found employment as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California, she offered to work for no salary and without an office, sharing space with a secretary.
Considered a federalist and a moderate Republican (what a combination!), O’Connor tended to approach each case narrowly without arguing for sweeping precedents. Although she most frequently sided with the court’s conservative bloc, in the latter years of her tenure, she was regarded as having the swing opinion in many cases.
O’Connor has said she felt a responsibility to demonstrate women could do the job of justice. She faced some practical concerns, including the lack of a woman’s restroom near the courtroom. Two years after O’Connor joined the court, The New York Times published an editorial that mentioned the “nine men” of the “SCOTUS.” O’Connor responded with a pithy letter to the editor reminding the Times that the court was no longer composed of nine men and referred to herself as FWOTSC (First Woman On The Supreme Court). In several speeches broadcast nationally on C-SPAN, she talked about feeling some relief from the media clamor when Ginsburg joined her as an associate justice of the court in 1993.
Prior to that, O’Connor was the lone woman on a centuries-old, male-dominated institution, and she held her own. And she protected the rights of women, people of color, and others that a conservative nominee would not traditionally be expected to uphold.
And this is what the nation should remember most about her as she retires from public life to live out he rest of her days with her family and closest friends. Sandra Day O’Connor was the original “SDO,” and her legacy as a centrist Republican justice is something that the modern GOP and court appointees should embrace. She revered the Constitution. She honored the legal principle stare decisis, a doctrine of precedent. Yet, because she was a woman, she understood the Constitution evolves. That it always leads us toward a more perfect union. She put country over patriarchy and judicial philosophy. She put country first.
Sophia A. Nelson, Esq. is an award-winning author and journalist. She is author of the global best-selling book, The Woman Code: 20 Powerful Keys to Unlock Your Life (2014). Follow her on Twitter here.
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