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JUNE 2005

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (l) and President Judith Shapiro

“How a Cowgirl got to the Supreme Court”

By Nazneen Malik

“I was not seeking a position on the US Supreme Court,” says Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at a recent lecture at Barnard College. Originally intending to speak about women and the law, she instead decided to share her personal story with students, weaving together memories and experiences like a masterful storyteller, thus revealing an underlying principle that has governed much of her life—the unwillingness to take no for an answer.

Although Justice O’Connor is the first woman to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court in our country’s then 205 year history and became the first woman majority leader in the Arizona State Senate, her road to success was littered with many obstacles. But O’Connor has never been one to shrink away from challenges. After all, her first pet was a bobcat.

Growing up on a cattle ranch in the American Southwest in an old adobe house with four rooms, and no running water or indoor plumbing, O’Connor learned self-reliance at an early age. “It [the ranch] was so remote and out of town that we would go once a week to get groceries, the mail and to pick up any supplies that were needed. If anything on the ranch needed to be built, or repaired, or doctored, or whatever it was, it was a place where you had to do it yourself,” she declares. But she loved it, nonetheless.

It was education, however, that eventually played a significant role in shaping her future aspirations. When she was ten, O’Connor was sent to live with her grandparents in El Paso so that she could attend school. My father never had a chance to go to college, says O’Connor. Her mother, however, had briefly taught school after graduating from the University of Arizona. Both parents loved to read and understood the importance of providing their daughter with an education.

When she was sixteen, O’Connor enrolled in Stanford University and recalls being terrified because all the other students seemed better prepared and knew more than she did. Nevertheless, O’Connor made the Dean’s List in her first year and decided to major in economics.

But it was an undergraduate class at Stanford, taught by a persuasive professor with legal training that inspired O’Connor to pursue a law degree. She applied to Stanford Law School, and was accepted as one of five women, at a time when the school allowed fourth year undergraduates to complete a law degree in three years. Today, over fifty percent of law school students are female; however, back then, they represented no more than three percent, nationwide.

Despite her high academic standing and having been editor of the Stanford Law Review, O’Connor experienced tremendous difficulty obtaining employment. Intrepid firms confidently disclosed their reasons for not hiring women, and there were no mavericks who wished to break precedent and hire a female lawyer. One firm went so far as to offer her a secretarial position instead.

In response, O’Connor took matters into her own hands, approached the California district attorney’s office and negotiated the terms of her first job—no pay.

But when her husband was drafted and sent to West Germany as part of the JAG unit, O’Connor decided to leave her treasured job and accompany him. When they returned, firms were still not hiring women so she opened up a law office with a colleague. Shortly afterward, O’Connor gave up her practice to stay home and raise her children. Aware that if she simply stopped working she would never get another job, O’Connor kept busy. Among other things, she opened up a lawyer referral service and took bankruptcy court appointments to be a trustee in bankruptcy for smaller estates she could manage from home. “All of this was fine but I was so busy I needed a full-time job so that I could have a little peace and quiet in my life,” she chuckles.

She was subsequently hired by the Arizona attorney general’s office. “At first they didn’t know what to do with me and sent me out to the Arizona state hospital for the mentally ill,” she explains, “but you start at the bottom and you try to make something of it.”

O’Connor was later appointed to the Arizona State Senate and became the first female majority leader. Ironically, it was the same man who had offered her the secretarial position in the beginning of her career that introduced her to President Reagan and played a central role in her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1981.

“It’s a hard job,” admits O’Connor, “[but] I always knew that I wanted to work and I wanted to work at work worth doing and I have been privileged to have that kind of work.”#



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