It's both Women's History Month and Sandra Day O'Connor's 85th birthday, so it seems fitting to take a look at the life and accomplishments of the first woman on the Supreme Court (aka FWOTSC, an acronym O'Connor chose for herself). Both on and off the Court, it's been an exciting ride for O'Connor. She faced intense scrutiny upon joining the bench, became a powerful justice (though try to avoid saying "swing vote" around her) and cut a path that inspired many other women.
Read on to learn more — oh, and happy birthday, Sandra!
1. Brave enough to be the first
With a Supreme Court whose members now include Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, having women on the nation's highest court no longer seems like such a big deal. But when Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O'Connor to be the first female justice in 1981, the public saw that it was a major step forward.
O'Connor broke records when she was sent more than 60,000 letters in her first year. Most were positive, but a few weren't — one postcard told her: "Back to your kitchen and home female! This is a job for a man and only he can make the rough decisions. Take care of your grandchildren and husband." Another letter argued, "A female justice, engaging in routine matters, would find herself asserting issues and arguing contentions, activities which more accurately become the Marxist-related feminists rather than a wife and a mother who respects the psychological components of a family…"
These letters were laughable, but O'Connor knew there would be challenges that came with being the first woman on the Court. As she said in a 2013 interview, "[I]t became very important that I perform in a way that wouldn't provide some reason or cause not to have more women in the future."
Fortunately, O'Connor — who'd learned to be tough while growing up on a ranch — wasn't one to back down. Just as she'd persevered when no firm would hire a woman after she graduated from law school, she was ready to take on the challenges of the Court.
2. Put her own stamp on the Court
After joining the Supreme Court, O'Connor took a practical and considered approach to cases, as can be seen in her judicial opinions. In Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan (1982), in which a male student filed suit because he'd been denied admission to an all-female nursing school, O'Connor joined the majority in deciding that the state-run school couldn't refuse to accept men. She wrote that the school's "policy tends to perpetuate the stereotyped view of nursing as an exclusively woman's job."
For the 1992 abortion rights case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, O'Connor's opinion stated that requiring women to notify their spouses before obtaining an abortion was "repugnant to our present understanding of marriage and of the nature of the rights secured by the Constitution. Women do not lose their constitutionally protected liberty when they marry."
And in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004), O'Connor agreed with the majority that an American citizen still deserved the benefits of due process, even when considered an "enemy combatant" by the executive branch. Her opinion noted that "a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation's citizens."
3. Don't call her a "swing vote"
Over her years on the Court, O'Connor cast the determining vote in many 5-4 decisions. These cases touched on divisive topics such as abortion, campaign finance and affirmative action, which brought even more attention to them. In the media, she became known as a swing vote, and was credited with the power to make or break many a Supreme Court case.
However, if you happen to see the retired justice, don't mention the term swing vote — she won't thank you for it. O'Connor has said, "I don't like that term. I never did. . . I don't think any justice — and I hope I was not one — would swing back and forth and just try to make decisions not based on legal principles but on where you thought the direction should go, and so I never liked that term."
4. Welcomed Ruth Bader Ginsburg
O'Connor once remarked, "It's all right to be the first to do something, but I certainly didn't want to be the last woman on the Supreme Court." Fortunately, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the Court, O'Connor could put that worry aside.
O'Connor also made sure to warmly welcome the new justice when she arrived. In Ginsburg's words, "Justice O’Connor knew what it was like to learn the ropes on one’s own. She told me what I needed to know when I came on board for the court’s 1993 term — not in an intimidating dose, just enough to enable me to navigate safely my first days and weeks."
Having Ginsburg join the bench made the first female justice's life easier in another way. As O'Connor explained in 2009, "I was an anomaly on the Court for a number of years, and I was the subject of intense scrutiny because of that, with people going as far as digging through my garbage and hiding microphones at cocktail parties to get my private thoughts. And that did not change until we got the second woman on the Court."
5. Worked hard, played hard
O'Connor was a hardworking justice, but she found the time to engage in activities like golf, tennis and whitewater rafting. She also made crockpot lunches for her clerks, brought them on picnics to view cherry blossoms and encouraged them to carve pumpkins for Halloween.
Used to attending an exercise class before work in Arizona, O'Connor decided to continue the sessions when she joined the Supreme Court. She therefore "went to the YWCA and asked if they could find me an instructor who would be willing to come up here and start a class."
Over the years, many female clerks joined these workouts, but the other justices generally stayed away. Ginsburg felt that the class was held too early. And, O'Connor explained in 2012, "I got Justice Breyer up there a few times, but he didn’t want to be the only man."
6. Puts family first
In 2012, O'Connor said, "I loved the judicial process and being a justice. I loved my job." So what prompted the decision to submit her resignation in 2005? It was simple: she felt her husband, John O'Connor, who had Alzheimer's, needed her.
And when her husband had to move into a live-in facility, O'Connor still did all she could to make him comfortable there. That included accepting his new "romance" with a fellow patient. (It's not uncommon for Alzheimer's patients, who can no longer recognize their loved ones, to develop new feelings for other people.)
O'Connor explained in 2009, "He was in a cottage, and there was a woman who kind of attached herself to him. It was nice for him to have someone there who was sometimes holding his hand and to keep him company. And then he was moved to a different cottage, because his condition deteriorated. And in the new cottage, there’s another woman who has been very sweet to him. And I’m totally glad."
Her husband passed away later that year, but O'Connor could rest assured that she'd supported him in every way possible.
7. A legacy to be proud of
In 1990, O'Connor declared, "For both men and women the first step in getting power is to become visible to others, and then to put on an impressive show. . .As women achieve power, the barriers will fall. As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things, and we’ll all be better off for it."
And O'Connor knew her role as a Supreme Court justice had made just such a difference. "The minute I was confirmed and on the Court, states across the country started putting more women on than had ever been the case, on their supreme courts. And it made a difference in the acceptance of young women as lawyers. It opened doors for them."
However, O'Connor isn't hung up on how people view her contributions. In 2013, calling the thought that she's one of the most important women in U.S. history a "grandiose statement," she said, "I would like [my legacy] to be that I was the first woman to serve on the Court and I did a decent job."
Her legacy will be that and more, for O'Connor definitely helped show this country the heights that women can reach when given the opportunity.