The equality legacy of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

This Friday marks the anniversary of Sandra Day O’Connor’s successful nomination to the Supreme Court in 1981, which happened nearly 30 years after law firms refused to hire O’Connor as a lawyer because of her gender.

O’Connor was unanimously approved by the Senate in a 99-0 vote on September 21, 1981, with one absent senator personally apologizing to the justice for not being present for the vote.

It was the biggest recorded vote total for any justice in the court’s history. (In some past cases, the senate approved justices by a voice-only vote.)

O’Connor was one of three justices successfully nominated by President Ronald Reagan, along with Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. Reagan also saw William Rehnquist’s approval as chief justice, and lost the nomination battle over Robert Bork.

As the first woman on the high court, O’Connor had her share of attention during the nomination process.

Other people on Reagan’s short list included Bork and Cornelia Kennedy, a Michigan judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

President Reagan had promised to put a woman on the Supreme Court during his presidential campaign, and he had his chance in July 1981, when Justice Potter Stewart retired.

O’Connor, then 51, had an interesting journey to the nomination process.

The future justice became involved in the law after her family was involved in a land dispute in El Paso, and she graduated from Stanford Law School in just two years. She reportedly was turned down by every law firm in California.

During that era, only about 2 percent of law students across the nation were women and Harvard Law only admitted its first woman in 1950.

She recounted the story in a 2004 commencement address at Stanford.

“After graduating near the top of my class at Stanford Law School in 1952, I was unable to obtain employment in a private law firm. I did receive one contingent offer of employment — as a legal secretary. But the gender walls that blocked me out of the private sector were more easily hurdled in the public sector,” she said.

Instead, O’Connor had a successful career in politics, with her own law firm and as an assistant state attorney general. She also was the first woman to serve as a state senate majority leader in the U.S.

In 1974, O’Connor was elected a superior court judge in Maricopa County and in 1979 she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

A New York Times feature in July 1981 talked about some opposition to O’Connor’s nomination from abortion foes, who had concerns about her record on the issue.

Reagan personally vouched for O’Connor’s abortion views and he said he was ”completely satisfied” about her consistency with his position.

She also remembered the significance of Reagan’s decision in that Stanford commencement speech.

“His decision was as much a surprise to me as it was to the nation as a whole. But Ronald Reagan knew that his decision wasn’t about Sandra Day O’Connor; it was about women everywhere. It was about a nation that was on its way to bridging a chasm between genders that had divided us for too long.”

O’Connor went on to serve on the Supreme Court for 24 years and she retired on January 31, 2006.

The justice had significant influence on the court’s decisions as a moderate conservative and a potential swing vote on decisions.

A feature on the National Archives web site sums up O’Connnor’s legacy beyond the court.

“When O’Connor was appointed, 36 percent of law school students were women; by the time she retired from the court in 2006 that percentage had risen to 48 percent.”

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