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In Brief

Sandra Day O'Connor: First Woman Justice of the Supreme Court

31 January 2012

Portrait of Sandra Day O'Connor (AP Images)

In 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Her appointment represented an achievement for American women, which she was mindful of. "It makes a difference for women to see women in positions of authority in high office," she once said.

Sandra Day O’Connor, appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, was the Supreme Court’s first woman justice. A native of Arizona, she graduated with honors from Stanford University’s law school, but was turned down by law firms because of her gender — a common practice in the 1950s.

In 1969, she was appointed to Arizona’s state Senate; she won re-election twice and became Senate Majority Leader in 1972. In 1975, she was elected to a state judgeship. When she joined the U.S. Supreme Court, she was the only sitting justice previously elected to office.

The pragmatic O’Connor was known as a consummate compromiser and became the “swing” vote in many 5–4 Supreme Court decisions. Her appointment represented an achievement for American women, which O’Connor was mindful of. “It makes a difference for women to see women in positions of authority in high office,” she once said. She retired from the Supreme Court on January 31, 2006.