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(OPINION) Celebrating Women: Our First Female Supreme Court Justice Sandra O’Connor

Contributor: Jack Carlson

The first female Justice, appointed by President Reagan, has been underappreciated despite her service to the Supreme Court and rule of law. Was it because she was conservative?

If asked to name a woman that has championed women's rights, upheld the Constitution, and furthered an equitable American republic, many would name Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ginsburg, after all, is the one of only three woman currently on the Court, at times a champion of the Constitution and a rightfully beloved figure. For all of the good that Ginsburg has bestowed upon the law, however, we should instead look to someone else as possessing the qualities we associate with Ginsburg: Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Raised on an arid, dusty cattle ranch in Arizona which provided neither electricity or running water, O’Connor grew up in a world completely separated from the one she would later occupy. Graduating from Stanford Law School in 1952, where she brushed shoulders with luminaries such as future Chief Justice William Reihnquist, who had even proposed to her, she entered the legal world only to find herself shunned and overlooked.

Like the ranch she grew up on, the legal world for women was often desolate and uninviting. She eventually found employment at a cost: she was not paid. Indeed, she was forced to share a cluttered office with a secretary and expected to perform her job as a deputy attorney without receiving a wage or her own private space with which to pore over legal work.

Though she moved on to become Assistant Attorney General of Arizona and most famously, an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court, O’Connor was arguably never able to escape the prejudices associated with being a woman.

Why, then, is O’Connor not celebrated more? Why do we look to Ginsburg so favorably, and as the epitome of a leader of women?

The answer to both questions rests in O’Connor being conservative. Having been celebrated at the time of her appointment by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 as the first woman Supreme Court Justice, progressives quickly shifted their attitudes. After all, O’Connor’s legacy has been marked by her “conservative” interpretation of the Constitution, and it would only make sense for progressives to view her negatively.

Of course, there is no “conservative” interpretation of the Constitution, just as there is no “liberal” or “moderate” interpretation; only the words of the Constitution and their original intentions.

Yet by finding herself in agreement with figures such as Justice Antonin Scalia, who had constantly been detested and hated by some progressives, O’Connor was swept aside, just as when she first entered the legal world.

Her concurrence in several cases did not help. In Bush v. Gore, O’Connor sided with the majority, stopping the Florida recount. In several cases, including Missouri v. Jenkins, O’Connor struck down and prevented policies that progressives had seen as crucial battles to upholding affirmative action.

By the end of her tenure on the Court, O’Connor was decidedly “moderate.” No longer a solid “conservative” justice, her legacy was forever tarnished in the eyes of progressives because of her interpretation of the Constitution.

O’Connor deserves more. If Ginsburg has one thing going for her, it is that she is still on the Court.

O’Connor retired in 2006, well before many of us had the capacity to celebrate a Supreme Court justice. I would wager, however, that with more attention to O’Connor, her rulings, her opinions, her profound and timeless legacy, people would begin to view O’Connor for what she has always been, a champion of both women and the Constitution.

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