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Sandra Day O'Connor Becomes First Woman on Supreme Court

By Patrick Mondout

Sandra O'Connor became the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court when she took her seat on September 25, 1981. President Reagan nominated her as his first appointee to the court on July 7th to replace retiring justice Potter Stewart. After three days of confirmation hearings in the Democratically-controlled Senate, which the focused on her views on legalized abortion, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination by a vote of 17-0. A vote among the full Senate confirmed her on September 21 by a 99-0 vote.

A Justice for the Reagan Revolutionists?

If the conservatives who swept into Washington with President Reagan believed she would cast votes consistent with their philosophy, they would be disappointed - particularly on abortion and social issues. Her views as expressed by her votes and opinions might best be described as dispassionate, somewhat conservative but moderate and pragmatic.

What her very public appointment did do for the Reagan administration was to fulfill a campaign promise and help to mask the fact that 92% of his federal judicial appointments in his first term were males.*

Sandra and Ronnie

President Reagan with his Supreme Court Justice nominee Sandra Day O'Connor at the White House on July 15, 1981.

Image courtesy of the Ronald W. Reagan Library

O'Connor's Background

Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was born in El Paso, Texas on March 26, 1930 but spent her childhood at her family's 160,000 acre ranch (the Lazy-B-Cattle Ranch) near Duncan, Arizona. You might think she lived the charmed life on her family's huge ranch in southeastern Arizona, but you'd be wrong. The ranch did not receive electricity or running water until she was seven and the nearest neighbors were 25 miles away.

She enrolled in the Stanford Law School and finished 3rd out of 102 in her class. (In case you are wondering, future Chief Justice William Renquist finished first.) After graduating from Stanford University, where she met her future husband John J. O'Connor, she served as Deputy County Attorney for San Mateo (California) County in 1952-53. She served as Assistant Attorney General of Arizona from 1965 until 1969, when she was appointed to a seat on the Arizona State Senate. After twice winning reelection and becoming majority leader of the senate, she was elected a judge of the Maricopa County (Arizona) Superior Court where she served until 1979, when she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

* From a 1985 study by Sheldon Goldman of the University of Massachusetts.



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Supreme Court Justices pose on September 25, 1981 with President Reagan in the Supreme Court Conference Room. From left to right: Harry Blackmun, Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan, Chief Justice Warren Burger, President Reagan, Sandra Day O'Connor, Byron White,  Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William Rehnquist and John Paul Stevens.

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