First Woman on the Court: Sandra Day O’Connor

On August 19, 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to be nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States. Today’s post comes from Danielle Sklarew, an intern in the National Archives History Office.

Four.

Roughly 3.5%.

That is how many women have served on the United States Supreme Court since its inception in 1789, when John Jay was chosen as the first Chief Justice of the United States. It took until 1981, 192 years, for the first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, to be sworn in and begin her 24-year-long career as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

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Sandra Day O’Connor being sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice by Chief Justice Warren Burger, with her husband, John O’Connor, 9/25/1981. (National Archives Identifier 1696015)

President Ronald Reagan nominated O’Connor after making a campaign promise to have a woman on the nation’s highest court. Within his first year of his Presidency, he got the opportunity when Justice Potter Stewart’s retirement opened a spot on the high court. The Senate, tasked with approving nominations, unanimously confirmed O’Connor, and she soon began serving on the Supreme Court.

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Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor as Supreme Court Justice, August 19, 1981. (National Archives Identifier 595429)

O’Connor’s influence on the court was immense, as she often acted as a swing vote on key decisions. Some of the notable cases that O’Connor worked on  include Bush v. Gore (2000), which confirmed George W. Bush as President, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), which helped uphold the Roe v. Wade (1973) decision that legalized abortion. And she was the deciding vote on a number of anti-discrimination and civil rights–related cases.

Her time on the court also showcased her resilience, as she fought breast cancer. After being diagnosed, there was speculation that she would retire from the court, but O’Connor continued her service. Even though she needed surgery and received chemotherapy, she did not miss any oral arguments and continued her duties of a Justice.

Including O’Connor, four women have served on the Supreme Court. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and both of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominations were women—Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who joined the court in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

O’Connor was the lone female Supreme Court Justice for most of her tenure, until Justice Ginsburg joined her in 1993. However, O’Connor did not want her gender to be a confining factor of her identity as a strong and effective Justice. “The power I exert on the court depends on the power of my arguments, not on my gender,” Sandra Day O’Connor famously said.

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President Bill Clinton with Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the Rose Garden, 6/14/1993. (National Archives Identifier 2521376)

Sandra Day O’Connor resigned the Supreme Court in 2005 at age 75 years. At the time, husband had Alzheimer’s disease, and she wanted to spend more time with him. Justice O’Connor was replaced by Justice Samuel Alito on January 31, 2006, a selection made by President George W. Bush.

Although Sandra Day O’Connor is no longer serving on the court, her legacy will be forever cemented in history as the first woman to hold the esteemed title of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

To hear from OConnor herself, watch A Conversation with Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter, at the John F. Kennedy Library on December 13, 2010.

 

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