March 4, 2022 

Sandra Day O’Connor: Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court
by John Travis, Allison Evans and Jonathan Tindor

As we recognize Women’s History Month, HPS celebrates the achievements and contributions of women attorneys everywhere. We are pleased to spotlight six of them in particular: the five women jurists who have been confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court and the most recent nominee.

From left: Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court Warren Burger, John O'Connor, US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, being sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice, Washington, D.C., September 25, 1981 (Everett Collection / Courtesy Everett Collection -

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justice O’Connor was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1930, to Harry and Ada Mae Day, who owned an Arizona cattle ranch without running water or electricity. Justice O’Connor lived there until moving to live with her grandmother in El Paso, Texas, so that the prodigious future jurist could attend school.

Justice O’Conner graduated from high school in 1946, at age 16, and headed west to study at Stanford University, where she was president of her senior class, graduating with an undergraduate degree in economics in 1950. She remained in Palo Alto for law school, serving as an editor of the Stanford Law Review and befriending classmate—and future Supreme Court colleague—William H. Rehnquist.

Prejudice against women attorneys prevented Justice O’Connor from joining a private sector firm, so she worked as a deputy county attorney in California—a position without a salary—before moving to Germany with her husband, John Jay O’Connor. The O’Connors eventually returned to Arizona, where Justice O’Connor worked as an assistant attorney general. She then became a member of the Arizona State Senate, ascending to become the first women to serve as a majority leader in any state senate in the country. In 1974, she became a county judge, and in 1979 was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated Justice O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court, fulfilling a campaign pledge to appoint a woman to the high court. Justice O’Connor was confirmed by unanimous vote, and served on the court until retiring in 2006.