O’Connor Is the First Woman to Serve as Supreme Court Justice

Sixty-one years after women achieved the right to vote in the United States, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Summary of Event

In July, 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor for the position of associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. One hundred one men had held this position before her; no woman had been nominated previously. The scene was set for an important moment in the history of women’s rights in the United States. Supreme Court, U.S.;justices
Women;Supreme Court justices
[kw]O’Connor Is the First Woman to Serve as Supreme Court Justice (Sept. 25, 1981)
[kw]First Woman to Serve as Supreme Court Justice, O’Connor Is the (Sept. 25, 1981)
[kw]Woman to Serve as Supreme Court Justice, O’Connor Is the First (Sept. 25, 1981)
[kw]Supreme Court Justice, O’Connor Is the First Woman to Serve as (Sept. 25, 1981)
[kw]Court Justice, O’Connor Is the First Woman to Serve as Supreme (Sept. 25, 1981)
[kw]Justice, O’Connor Is the First Woman to Serve as Supreme Court (Sept. 25, 1981)
Supreme Court, U.S.;justices
Women;Supreme Court justices
[g]North America;Sept. 25, 1981: O’Connor Is the First Woman to Serve as Supreme Court Justice[04660]
[g]United States;Sept. 25, 1981: O’Connor Is the First Woman to Serve as Supreme Court Justice[04660]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Sept. 25, 1981: O’Connor Is the First Woman to Serve as Supreme Court Justice[04660]
[c]Women’s issues;Sept. 25, 1981: O’Connor Is the First Woman to Serve as Supreme Court Justice[04660]
O’Connor, Sandra Day
Reagan, Ronald
[p]Reagan, Ronald;Supreme Court nominations
Burger, Warren E.

The Constitution of the United States establishes that all Supreme Court justices be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Once appointed, a justice remains in office until retirement or death, unless convicted of high crimes or misdemeanors. The Constitution does not clearly define the qualifications an individual must have to serve on the Supreme Court. Theoretically, then, there has never been a barrier to the appointment of women to the Court. Practically, however, the selection of women to such a position was unthinkable for much of U.S. history.

At the national level, women won the right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Nineteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) Women, however, were slow to exercise this right. It was not until 1948 that a majority of eligible women voted. Only in 1968 did the percentages of eligible men and women voting in American elections become roughly equal.

If American women’s acceptance of the responsibility of voting was gradual, the acceptance of women as legitimate candidates for political office took even more time. Only a small number of women were elected or appointed to political positions in the United States between 1920 and 1960, even though women’s groups encouraged women to seek office and encouraged political leaders to appoint women to positions at all levels of government. It took nearly fifty years for men and women to accept the notion that women as well as men should have responsibility for running the government.

Recognition of women’s lower level of participation in politics and widespread support for encouraging greater participation by women were products of the rebirth of a broad-based women’s movement in the 1970’s. With the movement’s emphasis on women’s equality with men in political, legal, and economic rights, new women’s political organizations were created, and old organizations saw the development of women’s caucuses bringing forward women’s issues. The success of these groups was reflected by public opinion polls in the 1970’s that increasingly showed that both men and women thought gender should not be considered in decisions regarding election or selection for political office.

These changes in public opinion resulted in dramatic increases in the percentages of women holding appointed or elected political offices in the United States between 1971 and 1981. Nevertheless, only 5 percent of U.S. judges were women in 1981. Women were particularly hampered in becoming judges by continuing discrimination that made it difficult for them to enter law school and receive legal degrees. Although a law degree is not required for a federal judicial appointment, and although there have been Supreme Court justices who were not lawyers, in modern times an individual without a law degree would be dismissed from serious consideration for such a position.

Ironically, the Supreme Court had played an instrumental role in the discrimination against women in law. In 1878, the Court upheld an Illinois statute that prevented women from practicing law as a profession. Although women were gradually accepted into law schools in the twentieth century, discrimination against female applicants continued until the 1970’s. The paucity of female lawyers meant that only a small number of women were eligible to be appointed to judgeships.

The first female U.S. judge, Genevieve R. Cline, Cline, Genevieve R. was appointed to the federal judiciary in 1928. As early as 1934, Florence Allen, Allen, Florence a federal appeals court justice, was suggested as a potential Supreme Court candidate. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, women’s political organizations such as the National Organization for Women National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus National Women’s Political Caucus[National Womens Political Caucus] increased the pressure on presidents to appoint more women to the federal judiciary. Presidents Richard M. Nixon Nixon, Richard M. and Gerald R. Ford Ford, Gerald R. included women on their lists of candidates to be evaluated by the American Bar Association Committee on the Federal Judiciary when they were selecting nominees to fill Supreme Court vacancies, but their final choices were men. President Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy appointed more women to the federal judiciary than any president before him. Historians have speculated that he would have appointed a woman to the Supreme Court if a vacancy on the Court had occurred during his administration, but there was no such vacancy.

Sandra Day O’Connor.

(Library of Congress)

Public opinion polls in the 1970’s showed that both men and women believed it was time for women to have representation on the Supreme Court. Supreme Court justices such as William J. Brennan Brennan, William J. and Thurgood Marshall Marshall, Thurgood concurred with public opinion by openly supporting the selection of a female justice. In 1980, the members of the Supreme Court changed the manner in which they signed their opinions from “Mr. Justice” to “Justice,” a change most observers believed represented their desire to make the Court a more amenable place for a female justice.

In the summer of 1981, the opportunity to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court arose when Justice Potter Stewart Stewart, Potter retired. In July, President Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to fill the vacancy. Although Reagan had made a campaign promise to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court, many observers were surprised at the nomination, as Reagan was not viewed as a champion of women’s rights. He had opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, Equal Rights Amendment and in his first months as president, he had appointed fewer women to the judiciary than had his predecessor.

One factor that may have been significant in Reagan’s decision was that in the 1980 election women finally became a significant force at the polls; 51 percent of the voters were women. There was also recognition that women, as voters, tended to hold positions on particular issues that were different from those held by men. Political analysts labeled these differences between men and women the “gender gap” and warned male politicians that they had to pay attention to women’s issues if they wanted women’s votes. Reagan’s pollster was one of the first to recognize the gender gap, and this may have played a role in Reagan’s decision to select a woman for the Supreme Court.

Regardless of how Reagan reached his decision to select a woman, once he had decided, the pool of potential women candidates was small. Reagan’s ideal choice would be both a lawyer and an active member of the Republican Party, would have some judicial experience, and would share the president’s political ideology. Sandra Day O’Connor met these qualifications.

The Senate is required by the Constitution to confirm all nominees for positions on the Supreme Court. The Senate Judiciary Committee holds public hearings to question nominees regarding their views on key constitutional issues and the role Supreme Court justices play in the process of the U.S. government. O’Connor’s confirmation hearing went extremely well. The senators expressed their delight with having the opportunity to confirm a woman and their pleasure that O’Connor was the candidate before them. The Judiciary Committee recommended her approval to the full Senate, which confirmed her by a vote of ninety-nine to one. Public opinion also concurred with the selection of O’Connor to the Court. In one poll, 64 percent of the respondents indicated their belief that O’Connor was fully qualified to serve on the Court. On September 25, 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in as an associate justice of the United States by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.


O’Connor’s appointment to the Supreme Court was a symbolic victory for women in the United States and an important political victory as well. In the United States, the highest judicial position that can be obtained is Supreme Court justice. The Supreme Court decides questions of federal and constitutional significance; its decisions have impacts on all other federal and state courts. Because the Court is made up of only nine justices, and as the justices hold their positions for indeterminate periods of time, each justice has significant legal power in the U.S. government.

Until O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court, women had lacked representation in this judicial body. O’Connor’s appointment was an open acknowledgment that women should be represented on the Court. It established a precedent for female Supreme Court justices and fostered greater acceptance of women as judges at all levels.

Each time a woman attains an important national office, the precedent is established that women should be considered for all such positions in the future, and another barrier against women’s full acceptance into the political realm falls. Sandra Day O’Connor’s appointment to the Supreme Court opened the highest positions in the American judiciary to women and thus increased women’s political participation.

O’Connor’s appointment also served to encourage many women who wanted to attend law school and aspired to judicial careers. Law school admissions for women doubled in the United States in the 1970’s and more than doubled again in the 1980’s. The resulting expansion in the number of female lawyers created a larger pool of qualified women for selection to federal and state judicial positions.

The appointment of O’Connor to the Supreme Court represented a victory for a number of women’s groups and other organizations that had actively lobbied in the 1970’s for the appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court, although some of these had reservations about her conservative background. The pressure these groups had put on presidents and on Congress paid off with O’Connor’s appointment.

Many Americans, both men and women, hoped that having a woman on the Supreme Court would mean that the Court would get a woman’s perspective on particular legal issues. Some of the most highly debated issues taken up by the Court have involved the legal rights of women, including employment discrimination and reproductive rights. Obviously, one woman could not represent the diversity of opinion among all women on these controversial issues, but many people hoped that having a woman’s voice on the Court would broaden the scope of the justices’ discussions. O’Connor emerged as a swing vote on the Court, becoming a critical participant in numerous closely decided opinions. She became known as a centrist whose support was needed to craft court majorities, a role she played until her retirement from the Court in 2006.

Sandra Day O’Connor’s appointment to the Supreme Court was an important moment in the history of women’s rights in the United States. It seemed unlikely that the Court would ever be without a female justice again. Three men were selected to fill vacancies on the Court in the decade following O’Connor’s appointment, however, indicating that there was no immediate pressure to increase women’s representation. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed the second woman to the Court, liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It became clear at that time that the appointment of a woman to the Court was no longer controversial. Supreme Court, U.S.;justices
Women;Supreme Court justices

Further Reading

  • Biskupic, Joan. Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice. New York: Ecco Press, 2005. Biography describes O’Connor’s life before her appointment to the Supreme Court as well as her years as a justice, with a focus on her role within the Court. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Cook, Beverly B. “Women as Supreme Court Candidates: From Florence Allen to Sandra O’Connor.” Judicature 65 (December/January, 1982): 314-329. Compares the qualifications of two women who were considered as Supreme Court candidates and examines why the people of the United States were more accepting of a woman as a Supreme Court candidate in 1981.
  • Linford, Orma. “Sandra Day O’Connor: Myrna Bradwell’s Revenge.” In Women and the Constitution: Symposium Papers. Atlanta, Ga.: Carter Center of Emory University, 1990. Gives an overview of O’Connor’s qualifications for the position and an assessment of her judicial opinions related to questions of women’s rights. Appears in a collection of papers first presented at a conference convened by former First Ladies Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, and Pat Nixon.
  • O’Connor, Sandra Day. The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice. New York: Random House, 2003. Justice O’Connor offers her own observations on the law and on her life as a Supreme Court justice. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Skene, Neil. “O’Connor Becoming the New Powell.” Congressional Quarterly Almanac 47 (September 30, 1990): 2598. Brief analysis of Justice O’Connor’s role on the Supreme Court. Asserts that O’Connor’s vote became pivotal on social issues on which the Court was evenly divided.
  • U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary. Nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor. 97th Congress, 1st session, 1981. Public document provides an understanding of what the senators on the Judiciary Committee viewed as the key qualifications for the position of Supreme Court justice and how O’Connor looked at the role of a Supreme Court justice and the issues that come before the Court.
  • Witt, Elder. “O’Connor at the Court.” In A Different Justice: Reagan and the Supreme Court. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1986. Reviews Justice O’Connor’s appointment and presents an evaluation of the justice’s perspective on the key issues that were decided by the Court in her first four terms.

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