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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Slattery

A Portrait of Modern Femininity

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the original SCOTUS Lady, passed away last week at the age of 93.

Women seated in chair with purple and pink scarf
Sandra Day O'Connor 1930-2023 (Photo: Danni Dawson, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

It's a cliché to say she was a trailblazer, but I won't let that stop me. There's a reason her biography by Evan Thomas is called First. One of only five women in her class at Stanford Law School, she struggled to find a job as an attorney after graduation. But she eventually landed a job with the County Attorney for San Mateo County, California (after offering to work for free!). She later went on to serve in the Arizona Senate, becoming the first female majority leader of any state legislature. She also served as a trial judge and appellate judge in Arizona. And, of course, she broke yet another glass ceiling when President Ronald Reagan appointed her to the Supreme Court in 1981. (When announcing her appointment, Reagan said he had not selected a woman "merely to do so" and that O'Connor met "the very high standards that [he] demand[ed] of all court appointees.") From that perch, O'Connor would become one of the most powerful women in the world.

It was more than a decade before she was joined by another woman (you know who!) on our nation's highest court. Today, there are four women serving on the Supreme Court, inching closer to Justice Ginsburg's suggestion that there will be enough women on the Court "when there are nine." But without the example of the one who came first, would those four women have set out on their current paths?

four women judges
The real SCOTUS Ladies at Kagan's investiture ceremony (photo: Supreme Court)

In their statements regarding O'Connor's death, Elena Kagan remembered thinking O'Connor's nomination was "momentous and inspirational" as she prepared to go to law school. Amy Coney Barrett recalled being nine years old at the time of the nomination and feeling "awestruck" by the woman (and mother) who achieved what had previously been "unattaintable." Sonia Sotomayor expressed sadness upon losing a "guiding light," and Ketanji Brown Jackson marveled at O'Connor's "grace and grit."

I'll leave it to others to discuss the legacy of O'Connor's jurisprudence. To my mind, she's the ultimate portrait of modern femininity. She balanced a high-powered career with having a family and demonstrated to future generations of women that we don't have to sacrifice femininity to succeed in the law. She wore pink and purple suits, accessorized her judicial robes with a lace jabot (a style was made famous by Justice Ginsburg), and started an aerobics class at the Supreme Court.

She also was committed to fostering a respectful and collegial environment at work, notwithstanding the hotly debated and high stakes issues they were called upon to decide. Clarence Thomas once observed this made her "the glue" that bound the justices together. (For more on O'Connor's civility and mental toughness, check out Anastasia's blog for the Cato Institute.) Justice Barrett put it best: "I am grateful not only for the doors she opened, but for the style with which she walked through them."

Women with careers in the law today stand on the shoulders of those who forged a path before us, and Sandra Day O'Connor is chief among them. May she rest in peace.


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