Sandra Day O'Connor: The First, an American Experience presentation

(Rochester, NY) – For 191 years, the Supreme Court of the United States was populated only by men. When President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor as the first female justice in 1981, the announcement dominated the news. Time Magazine’s cover proclaimed “Justice At Last,” and she received unanimous Senate approval. Sandra Day O’Connor: The First, an American Experience presentation, airs Monday, September 13, 2021 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV.

During her more than two decades on the Supreme Court, O’Connor was the critical swing vote on cases involving some of the 20th century’s most controversial issues, including race, gender, and reproductive rights—and she cast the decisive vote in Bush v. Gore. Tough, exacting, intensely competitive, O’Connor was also hard-working, gracious, funny, and warm – a combination that inspired both admiration and respect, and facilitated her steady ascension from precinct captain to Arizona's Assistant Attorney General to Majority Leader of the Arizona Senate. 

Born in 1930 in El Paso, Texas, O’Connor grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona, where one was judged more by ability than gender. “She never got the message that there were limits to what she could accomplish,” biographer Linda Hirshman says. After graduating near the top of her class at Stanford Law School, she could not convince a single law firm to interview her, so she turned to volunteer work and public service. Determined to have both a career and a family, she was fortunate to find a supportive partner in John O’Connor, whom she met when they were fellow students at Stanford Law. They married in 1952.

Over the course of her long tenure, as a succession of Republican administrations fulfilled the party's objective to make the Court more conservative, O’Connor emerged as its center of gravity: the crucial swing vote on the issues that mattered most to most Americans. Bringing to bear negotiation skills honed as a legislator, she wielded her power to routinely and strategically press her fellow justices on both sides of the aisle to smooth out the doctrinaire edges of their opinions. To some, she seemed more politician than jurist: a judge without the courage of her convictions. To others, she was a welcome agent of comity and consensus. What no one disputed was that at a time of increasing polarization, the voice of the Court was often O’Connor’s––and more often than not, she spoke for the moderate majority.

Photo: Sandra Day O'Connor in the Rose Garden with Reagan
Credit: Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

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