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Sandra Day O'Connor: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Thomas Davis

Thomas has taught high school age students for 34 years, undergraduate 12 years, and graduate courses for the last 8 years. He has a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis University in Evanston, Illinois.

Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman to hold the position of Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. This lesson will examine her life, accomplishments, and notable quotations.

Who Is Sandra Day O'Connor?

As the first female member of the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor was a role model for many. As a graduate of Stanford Law School in a field that was not always welcoming to women, O'Connor applied the work ethic that she learned at a very early age to work her way up the steps of the judicial ladder to become one of the most famous women in United States history. Read on to learn about her family life and education pathway, as well as the myriad positions she held before being nominated and elected to the Supreme Court in 1981. We'll also review some major life events and accomplishments outside of the courtroom.

Sandra Day O Connor
Sandra Day O Connor

Ranch Life and Early Education

Sandra Day O'Connor was born on March 26, 1930 in El Paso, Texas. A daughter of cattle ranching parents, her early life was not easy. Her parents, Ida Mae and Harry Day, owned the Lazy B Ranch. At first, the Lazy B did not even have running water or electricity. In what was not an average childhood for a young lady in America, O'Connor grew up fixing whatever needed to be fixed and branding cattle. Although it was a tough life, she enjoyed it.

O'Connor could read by the age of four, and her parents were very concerned with her schooling. In order to afford her the best education, she was sent to live with her grandmother in El Paso. The plan was for O'Connor to spend her school months with her grandmother and summers on the ranch. She attended Radford, a school for girls, before attending Austin High School. She graduated from high school at age sixteen. As a young girl, when asked what she wanted to do when she grew up, O'Connor said, 'I wanted to be a cattle rancher when I was young, because it was what I knew and I loved it.'

Higher Education

Never taking the easy road, O'Connor applied for and was accepted to Stanford University in 1946. She attained a bachelor's degree in 1950 in economics and a law degree from Stanford University in 1952. Also in 1952, she married John Jay O'Connor, and the couple eventually had three sons. A law degree was unusual for a woman during this period of history, but to O'Connor it was full speed ahead.

Professional Positions

After graduation, she had a tough time finding work as an attorney. She initially worked for the county attorney of San Mateo, California, pro bono (for free). She must have done an impressive job, because shortly after, she had a paid position as the deputy county attorney.

Her next job was overseas in Germany, where she moved with her husband and worked for three years as a civilian lawyer. O'Connor returned to the U.S. in 1958 and moved to Arizona. She worked in private practice for a short time before returning to public practice. From 1965-1969, she held the position of Assistant Attorney General in Arizona.

In 1969, Governor Jack Williams asked O'Connor to fill a vacant Republican state senate seat. She was re-elected two times to that position. Then, she was ready for a new challenge.

In 1974, she was elected Maricopa County Superior Court judge. Her reputation as a judge was that she was firm but fair. When not working on the bench, she continued to firmly support the Republicans. Her next stop, in 1979, was the Arizona State Court of Appeals.

Supreme Court Justice

In 1981, President Reagan nominated O'Connor to the United States Supreme Court, and her appointment was unanimous. The United States had their first female Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. O'Connor was conscientious of the influence she could have and the mighty job facing her: 'If I stumbled badly in doing the job, I think it would have made life more difficult for women, and that was a great concern of mine and still is.'

President Reagan appointed Sandra Day O Connor to Supreme Court
Sandra Day O Connor and President Reagan

The fact that O'Connor was a Republican helped to label her as a moderate conservative on the court. As a judge, she considered each case on its own merits but tended to vote her political conservative bent. When asked if being a woman on the court would affect her decisions, she said, 'Yes, I will bring the understanding of a woman to the Court, but I doubt that alone will affect my decisions.'

She had an important vote in the 1992 Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey case, which challenged the right to abortion. The Republicans attempted to reverse the decision made in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case (which determined abortion was legal), but Justice O'Connor surprised the court when she voted to uphold the previous decision to maintain abortion's legality.

Her vote was also significant in the Bush v. Gore case, when she voted to uphold the original vote count in Florida, establishing George W. Bush as President. The Court ruled the recount on the Florida 2000 presidential election was over. Waiting any longer would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, thus it would be unconstitutional.

Sandra Day O Connor and her husband with President Bush
Sandra Day O Connor and her husband with President Bush

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