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Bios From the Bench: Was Sandra Day O’Connor the Original, Formidable RBG?

She alone determined the country’s fate on more than one historic occasion, such as in one particularly famous 2000 case where she cast the vote that decided the nation’s presidential election. She handed down decisions that protected affirmative action and upheld Roe v. Wade  though at the end of the day, she never identified as a feminist and vowed to retire her position if only she could be replaced by another Republican

Though not the feisty liberal firebrand the media has made Ruth Bader Ginsburg out to be, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor earned her own special place in history as the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Like Ginsburg, O’Connor learned to be tough early in life. She grew up a cowgirl on a 160,000 acre Arizona ranch. At the ranch, there was no heat nor running water. Other childhood lessons bred additional self-sufficiency. O’Connor moved to El Paso when she was just six years old, four hours away from her parent’s ranch house by train, to live with her maternal grandparents and attend an elite finishing school. 

O’Connor graduated from high school at just 16 and went on to Stanford, first for undergrad, and later for law school. She received no less than four marriage proposals during her time there, including one from another future Supreme Court Justice, William Rehnquist. She met her true match in another fellow Stanford law student, John O’Connor. 

Sandra was a year ahead of her husband in law school, so it was she who had to support the couple while John finished school. Sandra O’Connor had graduated in the top 10% in her class in law school and worked as an editor on the law review. And yet, much like Ruth Bader Ginsburg who also graduated at the top of her law school class and served on law review, O’Connor could not get a job as a lawyer. O’Connor told NPR’s Fresh Air in 2013 that she had called at least 40 firms in vain trying to get an interview. A partner at one Los Angeles firm even told her that his clients wouldn’t allow themselves to be represented by a woman.

Eventually, O’Connor landed a job as an assistant attorney general, and then ran for a seat in the Arizona State Senate. State Senator O’Connor then became State Majority Leader O’Connor before she pursued a judgeship on the Arizona Court of Appeals. She was sitting in her office at the Arizona Court of Appeals when she got the phone call that would change her life: news of her nomination to the nation’s highest court delivered by President Ronald Reagan himself. 

During her 24 year tenure on the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor certainly wasn’t a Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, she wrote a decision which ultimately gave states more control to draft laws that restricted women’s reproductive rights. As a state senator, O’Connor refused to back the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Far from feminist on many occasions, O’Connor once assured a Rotary Club that she was speaking to them with “[her] bra and wedding ring on.  

Though Sandra Day O’Connor wasn’t Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as the first female justice on the court, she stood for something more powerful. On a court split between eight other justices that were either more liberal or more conservative, O’Connor often cast the all-powerful swing vote, though she hated the term. Casting that tie-breaking vote often allowed O’Connor to speak for the court, securing her position as the most powerful woman in America for decades. NPR reports that during her tenure, O’Connor was so popular that some even suggested she run for president

And yes, O’Connor might have scaled back abortion protections in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, but her vote ultimately kept the court from overturning Roe v. Wade. And though she remained a stalwart Republican, she stood up for affirmative action in several cases during her term on the nation’s highest court, including a notable defense of the admissions process at the University of Michigan’s law school in Grutter v. Bollinger. And though she differed from the Notorious RBG in that she lacked the second female justice’s long-term history of defending women’s rights in court, her history as a state senator is remarkable in and of itself. As a state senator, O’Connor struck down hundreds of laws which discriminated on the basis of sex. It was an impressive act in and of itself that O’Connor made it to the state senate — and became its majority leader, no less — during a time when the Arizona state senate was, as she put it, “a very male and a very rough place for a woman in 1970.”

Perhaps she wasn’t a raging warrior for progressive causes on the Court, but it’s likely that Sandra Day O’Connor couldn’t have been that woman (or a woman appointed by Reagan) if she was to serve as the nation’s first female Supreme Court justice. After all, O’Connor has noted that she felt “a special responsibility” in her role as the first woman on the court. As she put it, she didn’t want to provide “some reason” that would prevent more women from being on the court in the future. In that aim, her mission was clearly achieved. Over a decade after O’Connor’s retirement, three women currently hold spots on the nation’s highest court — a path paved by the nation’s first female justice for certain. 

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

With a double major in Political Science and Economics, Allyson hopes to become either a lawyer or a professor of political science after she finishes her degree at the U. Her hobbies include shopping for clothing she cannot afford and working out without breaking a sweat. She is an avid lover of podcasts, and always appreciates recommendations. 
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