Wednesday, March 24, 2010


By Cleo E. Brown

Sandra Day O’Connor was born on March 26th, 1930. This means that this March 26th, 2010 she will be eighty years old. Sandra Day O’Connor faced many obstacles in her very long and brilliant career as a person and as an attorney. Although she was born in El Paso, Texas to an upper-middle class family comprised of her rancher father named Harry Day and her mother named Ida Mae Wilkey Day, the family took Sandra to the cattle ranch in South Eastern Arizona called “The Lazy B” soon after Sandra O’Connor was born. On the “Lazy B” Sandra Day O’Connor lived in isolation rarely seeing a face outside of her immediate family for months at a time. In addition to her parents, Sandra had a younger brother and a sister who were not born until after she had left the cattle ranch. (OYEZ, “Sandra Day O’Connor, p.1) This made Sandra feel like an only child.

By the time that she was the age of four, Sandra Day O’Connor could read. She read anything she could get her hands on to pass the time of day. She was a voracious reader. By the time that she was seven years old, the young Sandra could rope cattle, ride horses, and repair fences like a cowboy. She also knew how to “shoot a gun and steer a pickup {truck}”.(CNN.Com, “Sandra Day O’Connor: Self-reliant and ambitious” p.1) The cattle ranch upon which she lived consisted of 200,000 acres of unfertile and barren soil in the Arizona Dessert. On the ranch, which was also twenty-five miles away from the nearest town, there was no running water or electricity until Sandra Day was seven years old. She and her family, consequently, survived off of “well-water” until an irrigation and drainage system was installed.

In 1937, there was no law stating that a child must attend school by age five particularly if the child’s educational needs were being met in the home. Young Sandra, therefore, was not ready to enter The Arizona Public School System until she was seven years old. It was decided, however, because Sandra was unhappy living in isolation and as an only child on “The Lazy B” that she should return to her birth place of El Paso, Texas to be raised by her grandmother named Mamie Scott Wilkey who is credited with having cured Sandra of her “doll drums.” (, “Sandra Day O’Connor,” by Judy Hedding.)

In El Paso, Sandra Day attended The Redford School for girls and Austin High School. According to The Encyclopedia of World Biography: “She spent her summers at the ranch and the school years with her grandmother. She graduated high school early at the age of sixteen.”(p.1)

Having no serious suitor to marry her upon completion of high school Sandra Day, once again, engaged in a pursuit which was not usual in her day. She applied to and was accepted at the prestigious Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. She graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics. After completion of her Bachelor’s Degree she was admitted to Stanford’s Law School where she competed with and dated her future colleague named William Rehnquist. (CNN.Com, p.1)She also edited The Stanford Law Review as a law student at Stanford. Although she finished third in a law school graduating class of 102 students in 1952 with Chief Justice Rehnquist finishing first, Sandra Day had finished her law school classes, which usually took three years to complete, in two years.

Despite having graduated with honors from Stanford Law School Sandra Day could not secure employment. In 1952, in the United States, women who were not married and/or who worked in the professions were usually school teachers or nurses. Rarely were they admitted on college campuses at all to study; hardly ever did they attain Master’s Degrees, Doctorates, Law and MD Degrees. Finding work, therefore, for these women was extremely difficult. According to CNN.Com, “She was repeatedly turned down by firms that would not hire women, except one that offered her a job as a legal secretary.”(p.1) She applied for jobs in the Los Angeles and in the San Francisco, California Areas. (“Sandra Day O’Connor Biography”, p.2)

In 1952, Sandra Day O’Connor also married her husband named John Jay O’Connor III. John Jay O’Connor III was an underclassman at Stanford University Law School to Sandra Day’s upperclassman standing. Sandra had reservations about marrying John Jay O’Connor because, intellectually, he was not her equal although, technically speaking, he was older than she was. Rather than to return to El Paso, however, and work for a bakery, she married John Jay O’Connor. The couple had three sons together and were happy for a number of years until John O’Connor became afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease. Their children were born in 1957, 1960, and 1962. (About.Com, “Sandra Day O’Connor Biography”, p.1) Sandra Day O’Connor eventually secured employment in San Mateo, California as a deputy county attorney and worked as a civilian attorney for The United States Army in Germany. Ironically, The O’Connors finally settled in The Arizona of Sandra O’Connor’s childhood.

Sandra Day O’Connor, as the wife of a successful attorney in Phoenix, Arizona was not happy. She did derive feelings of success and accomplishment from raising her children yet believed that these “treasured moments” were short-lived and few-and-far-in-between. She needed something more in her life, and some project all her own to give meaning, purpose, depth, scope, and passion to her life. When she was offered employment in 1965, therefore, despite pangs of regret over leaving her children in the hands of a “sitter”, she jumped at the opportunity to work in her profession. According to The Encyclopedia of World Biography: “In 1965 O’Connor returned to full-time employment as one of Arizona’s assistant attorney generals….” In 1969 she replaced the State Senator from her district as an appointment at the instigation of Governor Jack Williams (1909-1998). She was then elected to the position in 1970 and in 1972. “She was chosen as the Republican majority leader in the state senate in 1972. “This for Sandra Day O’Connor was another first in a long string of firsts.” (p.2) By 1974, she had become a judge in the Maricopa County Superior Court. In 1979 she was appointed by Governor Bruce Babbitt to the Arizona Court of Appeals. In 1981, she was nominated to an appointment on The Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan. Although there were some reservations in the senate concerning her conservative stance on many of the issues, she was confirmed unanimously and quickly making her the first woman to become a United States’ Supreme Court Justice.

As a Supreme Court Justice O’Connor was called upon to make many gender related decisions. In Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan O’Connor ruled on the constitutionality of a state school for women which trained nurses excluding men. She, and the majority of the court found that a state-owned school could not exclude men from admission to the school. Similarly, in abortion rights cases she voted with a majority court to enforce abortion rights for women as a matter of privacy. (p.3) When former Vice-President Al Gore Jr. contested an extremely close election in which Former President George Bush Jr. won the electoral college votes while Al Gore Jr. won the popular vote, the justices including Sandra Day O’Connor stepped in and decided the outcome. She also supported the Death Penalty although she found troubling the numbers of people who had been convicted of crimes they did not commit. She was an early proponent, therefore, of the use of DNA evidence to determine guilt or innocence. She retired from the court on January 31st, 2006. Her reason was to spend more time with her husband John whose Alzheimer’s had become so marked that he had established familial ties with other people failing to recognize Sandra Day O’Connor and their sons. (Sandra Day O’Connor Biography in, p.1) Her husband died on November 11th, 2009.

Sandra O’Connor, herself, while on the bench suffered a bout with breast cancer from which she recovered. According to CNN.Com “she was diagnosed in 1988 with breast cancer.”(p.2) She went back to work, however, within weeks after she was treated stating at a press conference, “ I am not sick. I am not bored. I am not resigning.”(p.2) She was responsible for founding two women’s organizations although she was not a “strong supporter of the women’s movement.” (The World Encyclopedia of Biography, p.3) She was the founder of The Arizona Women Lawyers Association and The National Association of Women Judges. She also was a tireless worker on behalf of ending discrimination against women who sought admission to Arizona’s bar. She, along with her brother named H. Alan Day are the authors of Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest, which was published in 2002. (CNN.Com, p.1) According to Lucidcafe:Library “O’Connor currently serves as Chancellor of the College of William and Mary; is on the board of trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation; is on the executive board of the Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative and serves on the American Bar Association Museum of Law Board of Directors. (P.1) A high School in Glendale, Arizona as well as the Law School at Arizona State University in Tempe are named after her.

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