"WE DON'T ACCOMPLISH
ANYTHING IN THIS WORLD
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
The Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor is a trailblazer, a pioneer and a woman who has defied convention time and time again to carve out her own path in life. Born on an Arizona ranch in 1930, she was a tomboy with a thirst for knowledge, ambition for a career, and the guts to reject the traditional goals for a girl of her day. She opted instead to pursue a B.A. in economics from Stanford University, and then went on to earn a degree in law.
On graduating, she was incensed to discover no law firm would offer her a job except as a legal secretary. She refused to settle for anything less than being a lawyer, so she turned to public service. She started as a Deputy County Attorney for San Mateo County, went on to become Assistant Attorney General back in her home state of Arizona, served in the Arizona State Senate, was an elected county superior court judge and appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals. By the time she was done in state government, she had served in all three branches of government, giving her the insider’s appreciation for the importance of their independence—and the seeds for her future work.
But it wasn’t until 1981 that she was hurled onto the national and international scene when President Ronald Reagan made good on his promise to appoint the first woman to the United States Supreme Court. Sandra Day O’Connor calmly withstood the tough vetting process for the job-- and broke the glass ceiling of the country’s most sacred court. After 191 years of being an all-male club, eight Supreme Court Justices had to make room for a woman. Over the next 25 years as she served among them, Sandra Day O’Connor earned the deep respect and trust of her male colleagues-- and all the country. Her decisions were known for being fiercely independent and fair, a true reflection of who she is.
She retired from the court in January 2006 to take care of her husband of 54 years. John O’Connor passed away of Alzheimer’s in 2009. Justice O’Connor has become an outspoken advocate for research into the disease, even giving up some of her fiercely held privacy to testify before Congress. Although retired from the Court, her commitment to an independent judiciary and to preserving a robust constitutional democracy remains as strong today as ever. She has created a foundation to teach young people civics and legal history and to encourage them to become active particpants in our democracy. After watching her children and grandchildren use the Internet, she realized she had to reach a younger generation through unfamiliar means. She developed her entire program as an on-line curriculum and interactive game site. icivics.org has received over a half million hits since being created in 2009, inspiring Justice O’Connor to go back to re-designing the site and adding more tools and games. To her, it’s a tragedy that more Americans can name an American Idol judge than identify the three branches of government—and she is hell-bent on changing this fact. At age 80, Sandra Day O’Connor is still a Minerva--with her helmet on.
Photo credit: Dane Penland, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States