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SANDRA DAY OCONNOR: Madam Justice

Sandra Day O’Connor went from getting forty job rejections in a row to having one of the most powerful positions in the country. As the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice, she paved the way for women in all parts of the justice system.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Olivia Riçhard with sound design and mixing by Bianca Gan. It was written by Olivia Riçhard and Nicole Haroutunian and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Jenise Morgan. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

It was a blazing hot day in Southeastern Arizona and Sandra Day, not yet ten years old, was perched in the driver’s seat of her family’s pickup truck! She steered the truck carefully down the dirt road that led to her family’s cattle ranch, the wind rushing in the windows and tickling her face. She had to reach her foot to press the gas and crane her neck to see over the dashboard. She was barely big enough to make it work, but on the ranch, barely was good enough. The ranch was called the Lazy B, though there was nothing lazy about it. Everyone helped out however they could and sometimes that meant that Sandra, who was the oldest kid in the family—even if she was still pretty little—had to take a turn at driving.

Sandra loved the quiet here and the bare beauty of the rolling land. She also loved books and studying, too.

In fact, the next day, she was heading back to her school in the big city of El Paso, Texas. There wouldn’t be any more driving while she was staying with her grandmother in El Paso. She knew her school there gave her better opportunities than if she stayed home, but that didn’t make it any easier to say goodbye. As the sun dipped toward the horizon, Sandra lingered just a few more minutes, wondering what her future might hold.

Back at school, Sandra dove into her studies. She finished high school in just two years and was soon after graduating from college with her degree in economics! When Sandra decided she wanted to go to law school, she saw that not many law schools were admitting women. But she applied anyway, and she got into Stanford Law School, a world-renowned institution.

After graduation, she married fellow law student John Jay O’Connor. In 1952, many married women in America stayed home to raise a family full-time. Not Sandra. She was determined to go to work too! She made a list of forty law firms where she wanted to work. Then she sat down with a cup of coffee and a telephone.

She ran her finger down her list of numbers. As she dialed the first one, her hands were shaking, not from nerves so much as anticipation. All her studying and commitment was leading up to this.

“Hello?”

With a surge of pride, she explained that she’d just graduated in the top ten percent of her class at Stanford Law School and would like to interview for a job.

The person she was speaking to paused, then asked: “As a lawyer? Here?”

“That’s right,” Sandra said.

“But you’re a woman.”

“Yes,” Sandra said slowly. “That’s right.”

Sandra heard a click.

She stared at the phone in her hand, feeling mad and sad. She didn’t understand why people still treated women and men so differently. Sandra was confident that she had all the qualifications anyone could hope for. She took a sip of coffee and tried the next number. And the next. And the next. And the next. And the next. When she finally got a hold of someone who said she could come in for an interview, they only wanted to see how fast she could type. Eventually, she made her way through all forty numbers. And each one of them ended in a resounding NO.

The terrible string of rejections didn’t dampen Sandra’s determination, but she needed a new plan. She found one more phone number to try. Her finger hovered over the phone as she gathered up her courage. She knew that her resume was impressive, her determination was strong, and she believed in the legal system.

Sandra dialed, and within a moment was explaining herself yet again, “Before you say no,” she said, speaking as quickly as she could in case they were about to hang up, “I’m willing to work for free.”

Sandra knew not many people had the option to work for free, but because she did, she had to give it a try. And that was how she got her first job as a lawyer.

Sandra was ready to prove herself capable and competent. She wanted to show that a woman could do any job just as well as a man could. And you know what Rebels… she did!

Sandra earned a reputation for being an incredibly smart and well spoken lawyer, who did her research. She soon rose from that job to another and another, until she was not only elected to the Arizona State Senate, but became the majority leader. She was the first woman to be elected as a state senate majority leader. But, she was determined not to be the last.

Sandra had a talent for encouraging people to listen to each other and find ways to collaborate and compromise. She also shined in debates on the Senate floor. When a seat opened up on the state of Arizona’s Court of Appeals in 1979, the governor selected Sandra to fill this important position.

This was a huge honor. Women were definitely more involved in the workforce by this time, but when it came to the legal system and positions in government, there were mostly men in charge. Now, things were about the change, and Sandra was a big part of this change…

A little less than thirty years after her rocky start in the legal profession, Sandra was sitting in her judge’s chambers, so deep in thought that she almost didn’t answer her phone when it rang. When she finally picked it up, what she heard made her sit bolt upright:

“Justice O’Connor, I have the President on the line for you.”

Sandra could feel her heart thumping so hard. The President…of the United States? Was calling her? She didn’t have time to even make a guess what he wanted before his voice was in her ear.

“Sandra?” he said.

Sandra gulped. “Yes, Mr. President?”

“Sandra, I’d like to announce your nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court tomorrow. Is that alright with you?”

If he said anything after that, Sandra didn’t hear it. It was like fireworks were going off in her head! She was shocked, dazzled, amazed, overwhelmed.

Rebels, you may know that, today, four of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court which is the highest court in the nation, are women. But for its first 192 years, every single Supreme Court justice was a man. Sandra remembered that President Ronald Reagan had campaigned on a promise to nominate the first woman to the Supreme Court, but she had never considered that she would be that woman. And yet, now that the invitation was dangling in front of her, she had no doubts she was more than qualified to take it.

“Yes, Mr. President,” she said. “I would be honored.”

Sandra’s confirmation hearing was the first one ever televised. Tens of millions of people from all over the country tuned in to watch, waiting to see if she would be confirmed. Although she knew she was the right woman for the role and that she was prepared, Sandra still felt a bit nervous. She wore bright purple to her hearing, which made her stand out even more against all the senators who were waiting to pepper her with questions. They were going to test her knowledge and ask about her qualifications for being on the country’s highest court.

But before they could say anything, Sandra took a deep breath and calmly gave her opening remarks:

“As the first woman to be nominated as a Supreme Court justice, I am particularly honored, and I happily share this honor with millions of American women of yesterday and today whose abilities and conduct have given me this opportunity for service.”

Because she was the first, she felt she was representing all women and their capabilities. For three days, the world watched as Sandra sat calmly answering all the difficult questions being thrown her way. Her hearing was especially tough—since it was being televised, more senators than usual showed up. But Sandra impressed them all, even those who didn’t agree with her answers. And she was confirmed unanimously!

On her first day at the Supreme Court, Sandra proudly floated down the long marble hallway, her stomach filled with butterflies of excitement. She couldn’t wait to see her official office and get to work. But as she opened the door her face immediately fell…

There was absolutely no furniture, not even a filing cabinet. There were lots and lots of documents though. Stacked up along the walls were piles and piles of paper – nearly 5000 petitions, briefs and requests waiting for her to review. The Supreme Court building was grand and imposing-looking from the outside but on the inside a lot of the rooms were outdated and even a bit dingy.

But Sandra refused to let any of that dim her excitement or intimidate her. She rolled up her sleeves, grabbed a chair from a nearby room and started working her way through the piles of documents.

Reading through all the papers reminded Sandra of her days in law school where she would read stacks and stacks of books. The workload was absolutely staggering!

Later Sandra said, “I must have read over a thousand pages a day when I first arrived”.

But being a Supreme Court Justice wasn’t just about reading a lot of important documents. Sandra also had to write dense, tightly argued memos to the other justices and script dozens of long and complex judicial opinions.

On the first Monday in October of 1981, at the opening of the court’s term, Sandra took her place on the bench. It was the first time she got to sit with her 8 colleagues in the oak-paneled conference room where the United States justices met to write and review the many laws of the land.

And not long after starting, Sandra got to weigh in on a very important case known as Mississippi University for Women versus Hogan.

You see Rebels, there was a man named Joe Hogan, who had been working as a registered nurse and he applied to the Mississippi University for Women’s School of Nursing and was rejected simply for being a boy. The school said it only wanted to accept women. Joe Hogan went to court in Mississippi to argue for his right to have equal access to this education, but the university won. Then the decision was reversed by the court of appeals, and pretty soon, this case was in front of the Supreme Court!

The nine Supreme Court justices had to gather to determine what was fair. Rebels this was about more than just one person getting to go to one school or even about one boy getting into an all female program. The decision on this case could shape the rules of school admission for decades to come. It also could mean the difference between a qualified young woman getting into law school or being denied the position simply because of her gender.

Sandra felt this was not only unfair but violated part of the U.S Constitution which says you can’t discriminate against someone based on their gender. So she and 4 of her fellow justices, who also felt it was unfair, voted to prevent this from happening. The final vote was 5-to-4 and Sandra was on the winning side!

Sandra knew it wasn’t about winning though. It was about listening and learning, being open to new ideas and defending the laws that were already established. From that day on, Sandra earned a reputation for being unpredictable because she wouldn’t be swayed by what other people wanted her to do, she always did her own research and made decisions according to her conscience. She decided on a case-by-case basis and voted with careful deliberation to benefit individual rights and the Constitution which she viewed to be “an ever changing work in progress”.

Over the next twenty five years, Sandra made very important decisions on the Supreme Court that influenced everyone in America – even the court!

For instance, When she first got there, there was no women’s bathroom in the Supreme Court, and all the justices were referred to as “men.” She made sure that got changed. She also camped out in front of her colleagues’ office doors until they agreed to start eating lunch as a group. She was determined to bring people with different opinions together to talk and learn from each other.

And, when she retired after nearly 25 years, she was no longer the only woman on the Supreme Court. Sandra Day O’Connor was the first female Supreme Court Justice, but she isn’t the last.

As Justice O’Connor famously said, “We don’t accomplish anything in this world alone… whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one’s life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something.”