Sandra Day O’Connor Becomes Nation’s 1st Woman Supreme Court Justice

Have you ever wondered who the first woman supreme court justice was? We’re sharing the story of Sandra Day O’Connor’s journey to this esteemed position.

For the first 191 years of the U.S. Supreme Court’s existence, every single decision was made by a man – because the highest court in the land was an all-male bastion. That finally changed on 21 September 1981, when Sandra Day O’Connor was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become the first woman justice on the Supreme Court. In light of today’s contentious and divisive political climate, it seems remarkable that a Supreme Court nominee could receive unanimous approval – but such was the strength of O’Connor’s intellect, character, and experience.

Photo: Sandra Day O'Connor, first female Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Photo: Sandra Day O’Connor, first female Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Credit: U.S. Library of Congress; Wikimedia Commons.

After graduating from Stanford University’s Law School, O’Connor could not find a single law firm in California that would hire a woman lawyer. Instead, she became the deputy county attorney for San Mateo County, California. She later practiced law in Arizona, and went on to serve that state as a judge as well as an elected member of the state legislature. Ronald Reagan had promised during his 1980 presidential election to nominate the first woman to the Supreme Court, and after becoming president, Reagan chose O’Connor for that honor.

She served as the 1st female Supreme Court justice for a quarter century, retiring in 2006, and became a centrist casting the swing vote in many high-profile cases. She was the only woman on the Supreme Court for the first 12 years of her career, finally being joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993. These two supreme court women represented a new era in the justice system of the United States. In recognition of her career and service, President Barack Obama awarded O’Connor the Presidential Medal of Freedom on 12 August 2009.

The following two newspaper articles are about O’Connor’s unanimous Senate confirmation to the Supreme Court. The first is a news account of her confirmation, and the second is an editorial.

An article about Sandra Day O’Connor being unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become the first woman justice on the Supreme Court, Mobile Register newspaper article 22 September 1981
Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 22 September 1981, page 1

Here is a transcription of this article:

Senate OKs O’Connor nomination

By Mike Shanahan
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Senate, ending an all-male tradition nearly two centuries old, unanimously confirmed Sandra Day O’Connor as an associate justice of the Supreme Court on Monday.

Mrs. O’Connor, a 51-year-old Arizona state appeals judge, will be sworn in Friday in time to join the court for the opening of its 1981-82 term on Oct. 5.

The vote was 99-0, with only Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who was attending an economic conference in his home state, missing from the tally. He had supported Mrs. O’Connor in earlier committee action.

“Today is truly an historic occasion,” said Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, leading off a series of 22 speeches in warm praise of President Reagan’s first high court nominee.

Hailing a “happy and historic day,” President Reagan said in a statement the confirmation of his nominee “symbolizes the richness of opportunity that still abides in America – opportunity that permits persons of any sex, age or race, from every section and walk of life, to aspire and achieve in a manner never before even dreamed about in human history.”

As the vote neared, a small knot of conservatives who had questioned Mrs. O’Connor’s views on abortions fell into line behind her nomination.

Jesse Helms, R-N.C., leader of the most conservative bloc of Senate Republicans, voted for Mrs. O’Connor, saying although she wouldn’t say so publicly, he believes she opposes the 1973 high court decision legalizing most abortions.

Helms said that on the day Reagan announced that Mrs. O’Connor would be his first Supreme Court nominee, he met privately in the White House with the president and was assured that Mrs. O’Connor shares Reagan’s opposition to a national policy of legalized abortions.

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the judiciary panel, said however that it is fruitless and risky to predict how any Supreme Court nominee might vote once he or she is sworn in.

“Once a justice dons those robes, enters that inner sanctum across the road (in the Supreme Court building),” Biden said, “we have no control. All bets are off.”

The late President Dwight Eisenhower nominated Earl Warren believing he was a “mainstream Republican,” and he turned out to be the most liberal Chief Justice in Supreme Court history, Biden recalled.

Biden said Mrs. O’Connor won such broad support from conservatives and liberals from both parties because she has “superior intellect,” strong moral character and the right temperament to be a judge.

“That’s all I have a right to ask,” said Biden, criticizing conservatives who attempted to make Mrs. O’Connor’s views on abortion the sole criterion on whether she should be confirmed.

Mrs. O’Connor will become the 102nd person to don the black robes of a Supreme Court member since the court was created as one of three equal branches of the federal government 191 years ago.

A graduate of Stanford University Law School, she worked as a state prosecutor in Arizona before serving terms in both houses of the state legislature.

A former majority leader of the Arizona Senate, Mrs. O’Connor served as a state trial court judge and was later named by Gov. Bruce Babbitt to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

Nothing Reagan has done in his eight months as president has won such broad support and acclaim from so many sides of the political spectrum on Capitol Hill.

Mrs. O’Connor’s confirmation represents a major political victory amid growing opposition to the president’s economic, diplomatic and military programs.

In three days of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mrs. O’Connor said she finds abortion personally offensive, but declined to give her constitutional view of whether a woman has a legal right to end a pregnancy.

An article about Sandra Day O’Connor being unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become the first woman justice on the Supreme Court, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 24 September 1981
Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 24 September 1981, page 4

Here is a transcription of this article:

Ideal Justice?

“Judges ought to remember that their office is jus dicere, and not jus dare – to interpret law, and not to make law, or give law.”

–Francis Bacon, 1625.

This is the rule by which Justice-designate Sandra O’Connor should be measured in the future. For the present, however, it is possible to say only that it is what she says she believes. She is a conservative, but she will not, she says, rule on the basis of an ideological line.

Nevertheless, it is impossible even for a justice of the most impeccable credentials to stay completely away from ideology, and the reason for this is in the nature of the law itself. It is subject to interpretation. The best law leaves the least interpretation to the judge, but the best laws are written by the best politicians – and those are not always available in numbers sufficient to see that every law passed is both good law and clearly stated.

And when the law is not stated clearly, much leeway is given for judges’ interpretive predilection in cases leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where that of Mrs. O’Connor could certainly come into play.

Consider the case of Justice Earl Warren. President Eisenhower made the nomination under the assumption that Mr. Warren was a mainstream Republican. But he was not a conservative; he did not reflect any such philosophy in his judicial pronouncements. They were among the most liberal in the history of the high court.

So there is no sense and there is no percentage in attempting to prophesy Mrs. O’Connor’s effect on this nation’s judicial direction. It is enough to congratulate a fine woman on the symbolic impact of her rise to preeminence. We also commend President Reagan’s wisdom and, let’s face it, his political savvy in appointing the first woman to the Supreme Court.

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