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Sandra Day O’Connor, First Female U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Dies at 93

She broke barriers and was known for her stances on states’ rights, affirmative action and national security

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Diana Walker//The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Sandra Day O’Connor learned a useful lesson as a young girl growing up in Arizona and hearing her father speak harshly to her mother after a few drinks in the evening. “What Sandra observed that was so valuable to her was that her mom did not take the bait,” her biographer, Evan Thomas, has said. “She learned how to roll with it.”

In 1970, when O’Connor was elected to the male-dominated Arizona state Senate, sexual harassment was an accepted practice. O’Connor, never an arch-feminist, picked her battles. Within two years, she was elected majority leader, the only woman to hold the office in any state.

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O’Connor, who went on to become the first female associate justice of the Supreme Court, died Dec. 1 in Phoenix, Arizona of “complications related to advanced dementia, probably Alzheimer’s, and a respiratory illness,” the Supreme Court said in a statement. She was 93.

In 2018, O’Connor announced that she was in the “beginning stages of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease,” which had taken her husband, lawyer John Jay O’Connor III, in 2009. She had survived breast cancer, for which she underwent surgery in 1988.

At the height of her 24-year tenure on the court, O’Connor was considered the most powerful woman in America. She was so known for her votes and stances on states’ rights, affirmative action, national security and abortion that conservative voices floated her name for president. But she had no interest in leaving the Supreme Court.

“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,” she once said. “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.” 

Born on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas, she grew up near Duncan, Arizona, on her parents’ cattle ranch, the second-largest in the state at 160,000 acres, which is about one-fifth the size of Rhode Island. (It was “like our own country,” she said years later.)

The oldest of three children (her sister, Ann Day, would serve in the Arizona legislature), Sandra was a self-sufficient child, learning how to shoot rabbits with a .22-caliber rifle and to change an automobile tire (she started driving as soon as she could see over the dashboard). But at age 6, she was packed off for El Paso, where she lived with her maternal grandmother, to attend private school. She would return to the ranch in Arizona for holidays and summer breaks.

At 16, she enrolled at Stanford University in California, eventually majoring in economics and graduating magna cum laude in 1950. She continued on at Stanford for law school, where she finished third in her class, and earned her degree in two years. While working on the Stanford Law Review, she met John, her future husband. One night, after checking a law review article together, “He said, ‘Well, why don’t we take this down the highway to Dinah’s Shack over a beer,’” she told Parade magazine in 2012. “So that’s what we did, and … that continued for 40 nights in a row.”

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She knew that he was the one when she took him home to the ranch. He proved a match for her gruff father, who was branding and castrating calves, and throwing testicles in a bucket.

“[My father],” she told political analyst David Gergen in 2012, “put [a few] on some baling wire and put ’em in the branding fire, and he said, ‘I’ll just fix a few of these for you, John.’ John, to his credit, took the things off the wire, popped ’em in his mouth, and said, ‘Very good, Mr. Day. Very good.’ ... John was one of the funniest people I have ever known. He made us laugh every single day.”  

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President Ronald Reagan and his nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, jurist Sandra Day O'Connor, in the rose garden of the White House.
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Despite being one of the top students in her class (along with future Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who had once courted and also proposed marriage to her), no law firm would give her an interview. Finally, the father of a friend, a partner in an Los Angeles firm, told her that clients wouldn’t stand for a woman lawyer, and he offered her a job as a secretary.

“That isn’t the job that I want to find,” she replied. She finally told a county attorney in San Mateo, California, that she would work without a salary until he was in a position to pay her, and to “put my desk in with his secretary.”

In 1959, she opened a law firm in Arizona and became assistant attorney general of the state in 1965. Four years later, she was appointed to a vacant seat in the Arizona Senate. As majority leader, she once confronted the chairman of a committee for chronic drunkenness. “If you were a man, I’d punch you in the nose,” he snarled. “If you were a man,” she retorted, “you could.”

In 1975, she became a Superior Court judge of Maricopa County, and in 1979, a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals.

She’d been in that role two years when President Ronald Reagan nominated her for the Supreme Court upon Justice Potter Stewart’s retirement in 1981, fulfilling a campaign promise to name a woman justice. Though she was confirmed with a vote of 99-0, she felt the freight of her gender, once saying, “I think the important fact about my appointment is not that I will decide cases as a woman, but that I am a woman who will get to decide cases.”

In a more relaxed moment, she opined, “It’s good to be first, but you don’t want to be last.” It took 12 years for the second, when President Bill Clinton appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

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Sandra Day O'Connor smiles as President Barack Obama presents her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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Behind the scenes, O’Connor worked to strengthen the collegiality of the justices. Noting that only four showed up for their weekly lunches, she began sitting in their chambers and refusing to leave until they came with her. “She knew from her own experience that breaking bread together is a way to get people to know each other,” her biographer Evan Thomas later reported. Clarence Thomas would tell O’Connor that she “was the glue … that made this place civil.”

Of all the cases the Supreme Court heard during her tenure, she singled out the Bush v. Gore decision in 2000 as one she regretted, believing it “gave the court a less-than-perfect reputation.” Along with Anthony M. Kennedy, she refused to render either a concurring or dissenting opinion.

O’Connor retired from the court in 2006, moving back to Arizona to tend to her husband, then in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. In hindsight, she has said she realized that it was “the biggest mistake, the dumbest thing I ever did.” For within six months, he no longer recognized her. She turned her attention to educating students about the court system (developing the website in 2009), campaigning to abolish elections for judges (she favored a merit-based system) and writing the last of her many children’s books and memoirs, Out of Order: Stories From the History of the Supreme Court, in 2013. She was then 83 years old.

President Barack Obama capped her career, in 2009, by awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Although she would soon begin to suffer cognitive difficulties herself, she wanted to stay busy. “If I stopped doing that,” she once said, “I think my whole life would disintegrate. I want to feel like, to the extent that I am able to, I can still make a difference.” 

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