In a sense, two cases of legal discrimination 120 years apart led to the event that occurred this week (Sept. 25) in 1981 when Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in as the first woman justice in the history of the Supreme Court. For it was in the 1830s, while working in her father’s law firm, that Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw first-hand the gender discrimination that would convert her into a feminist and inspire her to lead the woman’s movement toward equal rights.
And it was in the 1950s, after graduating near the top of her class at Stanford law school, that one of the beneficiaries of Elizabeth Stanton’s equal rights crusade — the young Sandra Day from El Paso, Texas — experienced such pervasive gender discrimination that no law firm would hire her for a job commensurate with her talent and school ranking, forcing her to turn to the public sector as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California. From that humble beginning, Sandra Day O’Connor — she married John O’Connor shortly after graduation — would serve as a civilian lawyer for the army, an assistant attorney general for the state of Arizona, and an Arizona state senator, where she became the first woman ever to serve as majority leader of a state senate. She left the Arizona senate when then-Governor Bruce Babbitt appointed her to the Arizona Court of Appeals, where she served for two years before President Ronald Reagan nominated her for the Supreme Court.
The appointment was both good politics and the honoring of a pledge Reagan had made during his presidential campaign, that he would nominate a woman to the Supreme Court “at the earliest opportunity.” O’Connor replaced the retiring Potter Stewart, a conservative judge appointed by President Eisenhower in the 1950s, and although O’Connor was considered a moderate on the abortion issue, her supporters believed that she was sufficiently conservative to uphold the doctrine of judicial restraint.
In hindsight it didn’t quite work out that way. Although she sided with the court’s conservative faction early on, throughout her career Justice O’Connor was a more pragmatic conservative with an activist streak. Often voting with the liberal wing, she became, in the court’s parlance, a “swing vote” who could go either way on an issue, but tended to chart a moderate course that — her supporters contended — helped ameliorate the often sharply divided court.
In that sense, O’Connor was like many of the Supreme Court justices who preceded her, and succeeded her, defying both the expectations and the political and social agendas of the presidents who appointed them. The one difference is that O’Connor was the first to do it from the perspective of a woman. Elizabeth Cady Stanton would be proud.