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Sandra Day O'Connor: Justice in the Balance

by Jo Freeman


Sandra Day O'Connor: Justice in the Balance
by Ann Carey McFeatters
(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005, 224 pp.)


If you know a young woman looking for a role model, give her Ann McFeatters new biography of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor — the woman who managed to have it all.  Not quite a female Horatio Alger story (O'Connor didn't grow up poor), it nonetheless has the requisite elements of"luck and pluck" that made Alger heroes so popular.  The formula works well for heroines too, if you throw in the good connections, doting parents and a supportive spouse needed by women to get through all of the barriers erected by social prejudice.

Born Sandra Day on March 26, 1930, the future Justice spent her early childhood on the enormous family ranch that sprawled over the Arizona and New Mexico border.  During the school year she lived with her maternal grandparents in El Paso, Texas, but it was the ranch which shaped her mind and formed her values.  Ranching was a hard life but not a bad life; it taught the young woman independence and self-reliance. O'Connor would always feel most at home and at peace when on the ranch.

The crucial decision in her life came at age 17, when her father sent her to Stanford University to get the college education he had craved but never obtained.  At Stanford being bright was rewarded; indeed given Stanford's quotas on girls in 1946, she had to be very bright just to get in, let alone get her B.A. in only three years. Stanford stimulated her intellectual awakening and redirected her life course.  Sandra had assumed that she would be a rancher or a rancher's wife; instead she entered Stanford Law School as soon as she graduated.  That was no mean feat, given the Law School's even lower quotas on women and the fact that veterans, aided by the GI bill, were still flooding all institutions of higher education.  Since she seems to have sailed pass all of these barriers without even noticing them, one should not be surprised that she graduated third in her class.

Sandra Day met her husband at Stanford, and after marrying John O'Connor, apparently slipped back into a more conventional life for a woman. The story has often been told that the only job she could find after getting her law degree was as a legal secretary – if she could type.  That was not an uncommon experience for women of her day trying to break into a man's profession.  While McFeatters doesn't tell us if she could type, she does tell us that O'Connor was limited in her search because her husband was still in school.  She persuaded the local District Attorney to let her work as an unpaid intern. McFeatters doesn't say if O'Connor got to do legal work while there, or only the work of a legal secretary.   Most entry level Assistant District Attorneys (in those days, usually all men) don't get to do much legal work until they get "experience" in the grub work of the office.

After her husband graduated from Stanford Law School she followed him to Germany where he was an Army lawyer, and then back to Phoenix, where he got a good job with a law firm.  McFeatters doesn't say where John was from (or much about him at all) or why they returned to Sandra's home state, where her parents had friends and connections. Whatever the reason, she couldn't find a job there either so she hung out her shingle in a shopping center with one lawyer as her partner and dealt with the everyday problems of ordinary people. She also bore and raised three sons; indeed, she gave up her law practice for volunteer work when her second son was born in 1962.

She went back to work three years later when she found a job in the Arizona state attorney's office.  This was another common decision for women; government jobs had regular hours — good for those who have families to care for but with low pay — which reduced competition from men.  So far O'Connor's story is one of pluck in navigating the briar patch society created for professional women before the new feminism began to slash it down.  However, luck would soon give her career a boost.

In 1969 O'Connor was appointed to a vacancy in the State Senate.  This appointment opened the doors of opportunity.  But why O'Connor? McFeatters makes the appointment sound like an ordinary career move, but it couldn't have been.  Had O'Connor been involved in local politics?  Did her husband have political connections? Or her parents?  Even in a small state like Arizona in the 1960s, a low level assistant states attorney, especially a woman with three children at home and limited work experience, just doesn't get appointed to the state senate out of the blue.  There was only one other woman in a Senate of 30 members when O'Connor was sworn in and she was only the sixth woman ever to serve in the state Senate.

The story behind this political appointment yearns to be told; as does the reason why O'Connor left after her third term to run for county judge.  Four years later luck smiled once again when a Democratic governor appointed her to the state Court of Appeals, only ten years after a Republican governor had plucked her out of obscurity for the state Senate.  Here a third element is apparent: timing.  During the 1970s the feminist movement was shining a bright light on all the areas of public life where women were seldom found, and politicians, wanting to look good to women voters, were paying attention.  Republican Ronald Reagan was one of them.  McFeatters reports that in October of 1980, with polls showing him to be unpopular with women voters, he announced that, if elected President, he would appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court.  In 1981 O'Connor became that woman because Reagan preferred Westerners and identified with people who loved ranches. Moreover, she had some experience but no real judicial track record which could be attacked, and her Arizona friends, Justice William Rehnquist and Senator Barry Goldwater, supported her nomination.

McFeatters makes short shrift of the path O'Connor took to the Supreme Court in favor of emphasizing what she did while there.  She devotes one chapter each to abortion, the death penalty and affirmative action, all of which often found O'Connor as the swing vote.  Although conservative, O'Connor was no ideologue; she preferred narrow decisions which decided the case over broad, sweeping declarations which framed the law.  She wrote many of these, helped by a little more luck: in 1986 her old friend from Stanford Law School became the Chief Justice who assigned the opinions. McFeatters says that they voted alike 90 percent of the time.  Rehnquist also made it easier for her to be the first woman Justice, smoothing the way so she could avoid much of the discomfort experienced by women who are the first to enter a previously male domain. Nonetheless, O'Connor was happier when a second woman joined the court, even though it was the liberal feminist Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

O'Connor was often called the "most powerful woman in America" and sometimes the "most influential Justice on the Court." However, McFeatters tells us, she gave it up to spend more time with her family. Chief Justice Rehnquist, ill with thyroid cancer, refused to resign and died in harness.  O'Connor resigned that same year to take care of her husband who was in the early stages of Alzheimer's.  President Bush, at the request of his wife, tried to appoint a woman to replace her who was in the O'Connor mold.  This alarmed the right wing of the Republican Party, which had thought O'Connor's opinions to be much too moderate.  It went into battle mode and forced White House Counsel Harriet Miers out of contention.  The times had changed again.

It was feminism which opened the doors for the first woman on the Supreme Court, and it was the reaction to feminism which helped close them behind her.

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