Sandra Day O’Connor: 5 Facts About the Career of First Woman on the Supreme Court

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been diagnosed with dementia, “probably Alzheimer’s,” she said in a statement. The 88-year-old former justice, who stepped down from the court in 2006, says she will withdraw from public life and spend her time at home in Phoenix, “surrounded by dear friends and family.”

O’Connor made history when she was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1981, becoming the first woman to serve on the bench. Here are five facts you might not know about Sandra Day O’Connor’s life and career.

1. She graduated from Stanford, but had trouble finding a job

Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O’Connor in 2011. | Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Colonial Williamsburg

At 20, O’Connor earned a spot at Stanford University’s law school. It was 1950, and she was one of just four women in her class. But she had no idea how hard it would be to build a career as a female lawyer, even though she graduated third in her class.

“No one gave me a job,” she told the Guardian in a 2011 interview. “It was very frustrating because I had done very well in both undergraduate and law school and my male classmates weren’t having any problems. No one would even speak to me.”

“Had I realized how hard it would be to get a job as a woman lawyer, I would have chosen another path,” she admitted in another interview.

2. She had to work for free because no one would hire a female lawyer

O’Connor hit a brick wall with her job search – many firms wouldn’t even interview a woman, let alone hire her. When she finally landed an interview with a firm, one partner wanted to know about her typing skills, according to Mental Floss. He’s be willing to hire her as a secretary, but not a lawyer.

Eventually, she found a job, but only because she convinced someone to let her work for free. The San Mateo district attorney had hired a woman in the past, and O’Connor managed to convince them to let her work there, even though there were no vacancies. She worked for no salary and shared a desk with a secretary.

3. She was the first woman to hold a legislative leadership position in the U.S.

O’Connor eventually opened a private practice in Phoenix and later spent six years as a stay-at-home mom to three boys. She also threw herself into community and volunteer work, becoming active in local politics. That paved the way for the next step in her career. 

In 1965, she took a job as an assistant attorney general for Arizona in 1965. When her local state legislator resigned in 1969, the governor appointed her to fill his seat. She late won the seat in a 1970 election. In 1972, O’Connor’s state senate colleagues selected her to be the Republican majority leader. It was the first time any woman in the U.S. had held such a position. 

4. Ronald Reagan nominated her for the U.S. Supreme Court to fulfill a campaign promise

Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O’Connor testifying at a judicial hearing, September 1981. |  Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1974, O’Connor left the state senate and became a judge, first for the Maricopa County Superior Court and later for the Arizona Court of Appeals. Then, Ronald Reagan came calling.

During the 1980 election, Reagan had pledged to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court in an effort to boost his appeal to female voters, according to the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute. He made could on his promise in 1981, when he selected O’Connor to fill the seat vacated by Justice Potter Stewart. When she was sworn in, she became the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court in its 191-year history. She served for 24 years.

5. She started a nonprofit to promote civic education

O’Connor retired from the Supreme Court in 2006, in part to spend more time with her husband, John Jay O’Connor, who had Alzheimer’s. (He died in 2009.) She also founded iCivics, a nonprofit that promotes civic education in America. According to the organization’s website, the former justice considers iCivics “her most important work and greatest legacy.”

In the letter announcing her dementia diagnosis, O’Connor wrote about how far she had come, and what she hoped she would be remembered.

“As a young cowgirl from the Arizona desert, I never could have imagined that one day I would become the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. I hope that I have inspired young people about civic engagement and helped pave the pathway for women who may have faced obstacles pursuing their careers.”

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