Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, dies at 93

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is shown before administering the oath of office to members of the Texas Supreme Court, Jan. 6, 2003, in Austin, Texas. O’Connor, who joined the Supreme Court in 1981 as the nation’s first female justice, has died at age 93.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is shown before administering the oath of office to members of the Texas Supreme Court, Jan. 6, 2003, in Austin, Texas. O’Connor, who joined the Supreme Court in 1981 as the nation’s first female justice, has died at age 93. | Harry Cabluck, Associated Press

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court, died on Friday at age 93.

Appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Justice O’Connor’s tenure on the court lasted more than 24 years. Following her retirement in 2006, she founded the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute in 2009 which seeks “to advance civil discourse, civic engagement, and civics education,” according to the institute’s website.

Former President Barack Obama awarded her with a Presidential Medal of Freedom that same year. He said, per ABC News, “A judge and Arizona legislator, cancer survivor, child of the Texas plains, Sandra Day O’Connor is like the pilgrim in the poem she sometimes quotes, who has forged a new trail and built a bridge behind her for all young women to remember.”

Remember her legacy, Sen. Mitt Romney said on X, “A symbol of the trailblazing grit of the American West, Sandra Day O’Connor will be remembered not only for making history as the first female Justice, but for her unflinching commitment to uphold the rule of law. Ann and I pray for her loved ones as the nation mourns her loss.”


Sandra Day O’Connor’s life and legacy

Born in El Paso, Texas, she grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona. According to PBS, she learned how to ride horses and drive tractors from an early age. She also spent her childhood days studying with the goal of getting into Stanford University.

O’Connor attended Stanford University and was on the board of editors for Stanford Law Review. While at school, she met her husband John Jay O’Connor. O’Connor experienced difficulty finding a job in California due to her gender. When her husband was stationed in Germany, she worked as a civilian attorney for the Quartermaster Masker Center, before the couple moved to Arizona, per her biography on the Supreme Court website.

After practicing law in the private sector, O’Connor was appointed one of the state’s assistant attorneys general. While in Arizona, she was appointed to fill a vacant Arizona State Senate seat. She successfully sought reelection of that seat twice, per her biography.

As an Arizona state senator, O’Connor became the majority leader of the state legislature — another first for women in the country. She would later become a trial judge on the Maricopa County Superior Court and following that, she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals by Gov. Bruce Babbitt, her biography stated. In addition to serving on these courts, O’Connor supported the National Association of Women Judges.

When O’Connor delivered her opening statement in the senate hearing after she was nominated to serve on the Supreme Court, she said, “As the first woman to be nominated as a Supreme Court Justice, I am particularly honored, and I happily share the honor with millions of American women of yesterday and of today whose abilities and whose conduct have given me this opportunity for service.”

“If confirmed by the Senate, I will apply my abilities to insure that our Government is preserved; that justice under our Constitution and the laws of this land will always be the foundation of that Government,” O’Connor later continued in her statement.

When O’Connor was appointed to the court, Reagan described her as a “person for all seasons,” per Britannica.

O’Connor is recognized as a woman who opened doors for other women in the legal field.

“The minute I was confirmed and on the court, states across the country started putting more women ... on their Supreme Courts,” O’Connor said, per NPR. “And it made a difference in the acceptance of young women as lawyers. It opened doors for them.”

Since O’Connor’s appointment, five other women have served or are serving on the U.S. Supreme Court: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barrett and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

University of Utah professor RonNell Andersen Jones, who clerked for O’Connor, said about her, per the the Arizona Republic, “She thought it was really important that we live well-balanced lives. I’m a different person today because of the year that I spent with her.”

“I appreciate the importance of making friends outside of the law, of connecting to people who think differently than I do, of sitting sitting down and having discussions with people who don’t share my ideological preferences,” Andersen Jones continued. “And I think everybody who clerked for her had that experience, everybody knew that. Everybody left wanting to be a little bit more like her.”

After serving her tenure on the court where she was the swing vote in several key decisions, O’Connor retired in 2006 to spend time with her family. Her husband had moved into an Alzheimer’s care facility before he died three years later. “It has been a great privilege indeed to have served as a member of the court for 24 terms,” she wrote in her resignation letter, per PBS. “I will leave it with enormous respect for the integrity of the court and its role under our constitutional structure.”

O’Connor became an advocate for civics education, founding the platform iCivics, which is a website to learn more about U.S. government. She considered her work in this sphere crucial.

“iCivics is my most important legacy,” O’Connor said, per ABC News. “I want students to learn how their government works and how, in essence, they’re part of what makes it function.”

Following a diagnosis with dementia in 2018, O’Connor exited public life to spend time with her family and friends.

“While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying, nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings of my life,” O’Connor wrote in a letter after being diagnosed with dementia, per CNN.

“As a young cowgirl from the Arizona desert, I never could have imagined that one day I would become the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court,” she wrote.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts said in a statement released by the Supreme Court that O’Connor “blazed an historic trail as our nation’s first female justice.”

“We at the Supreme Court mourn the loss of a beloved colleague, a fiercely independent defender of the rule of law, and an eloquent advocate for civics education,” Roberts said.

O’Connor is survived by her brother, three sons and six grandchildren.