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the first woman Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court
Sandra Day was born in El Paso, Texas, on March 26, 1930, the first child born to Harry A. and Ada Mae Wilkey Day. She grew up on her parents' Lazy-B-Cattle Ranch in southeastern Arizona, 25 miles from the nearest neighbors, an only child until she was eight years old (she subsequently gained a brother and a sister). With no schools anywhere near her family's ranch, she attended a private academy for girls in El Paso from kindergarten through high school, during which time she lived with her grandmother. She graduated magna cum laude from Stanford University with a degree in economics in 1950, graduated 3rd in her class of 102 from the Stanford Law School in 1952, and married fellow law student John Jay O'Connor that same year.
Unable to get a job as a lawyer in a private practice, O'Connor accepted a position in the San Mateo County Attorney's office, in which capacity she worked until her husband graduated in 1953. Soon after graduating with his law degree, John O'Connor was drafted into the Army's Judge Advocate General Corps and sent to Frankfurt, Germany. Sandra Day O'Connor accompanied her husband to Germany, and worked as a Civilian Attorney for the Quartermaster Market Center until he was discharged in 1957.
Upon returning to the United States, the O'Connors settled in Phoenix, Arizona. Again unable to get a private law practice to hire her as an attorney, O'Connor decided to start her own practice in 1958. She temporarily gave up her practice after giving birth to her first son in 1960, and spent the next five years working as a mother to a total of three sons (Scott, Brian, and Jay). Returning to the law in 1965, she served as Assistant Attorney General of Arizona until 1969.
O'Connor's political career began when she was appointed to the Arizona State Senate (as a Republican) by Governor Jack Williams in 1969. Subsequently re-elected to two full two-year terms, she ultimately served until 1975, including one year as Senate Majority Leader (1972, the first woman in the nation to ever hold that position) and two as Chairman of the State, County, and Municipal Affairs Committee (1972 and 1973). In 1975 she was elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court, where she served until 1979, when she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals by Governor Bruce Babbit.
On July 7, 1981, President Ronald Reagan fulfilled a campaign promise by nominating O'Connor to be the first woman Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court (to replace retiring Justice Potter Stewart). Although Conservatives questioned her lack of federal judicial experience and Liberals were unsure where she stood on feminist and other issues, she was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on September 22, 1981, and was sworn in on September 25. During her tenure on the Court, O'Connor was known for being a fairly strict interpreter of the Constitution, and was frequently the key swing vote in controversial cases, including the Court's upholding of Roe v. Wade.
O'Connor retired from the Supreme Court on January 31, 2006, but has remained active ever since. She currently serves on a number of committees and boards in and out of the legal profession, as well as Chancellor of the College of William and Mary.
This page was last updated on March 25, 2017.