Sandra Day O’Connor: A Woman Who Rose to the Top

Abigail Hauer ’20

On our Women and Leadership trip to Washington DC over spring break, we visited the United States Supreme Court.  After having a private tour of the Court, including a tour of the actual Courtroom, the women of our group stopped at the temporary exhibit about the first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor.


Sandra Day O’Connor, born to ranchers in El Paso, Texas in 1930, graduated high school at age 16. She went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Economics at Stanford University and her Juris Doctorate at Stanford Law School in only two years, graduating third in her class.  O’Connor served in several legislative and judicial roles before she was appointed to the Supreme Court.  She was the Assistant Attorney General of Arizona, a State Senator for Arizona, and the first female Majority Leader of any state.  O’Connor served as Superior Court Judge and Judge of the Arizona Court of Appeals before President Ronald Reagan formally nominated her to the vacant Supreme Court seat in August 1981.

While serving on the Court for 25 years, O’Connor was seen as the true moderate or “swing” vote. O’Connor voted in many prominent cases, such as Bush v. Goreto end the recount in Florida that ultimately led to George W Bush becoming President, but one of O’Connor’s most momentous cases was Aurelia Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, ruling that school boards can be held responsible under Title IX for “student-on-student” harassment. The case, regarding sexual harassment against fifth grader LaShonda Davis, found that the Monroe County Board of Education was deliberately indifferent as it ignored several complaints by LaShonda Davis’ mother about serious and systematic harassment.  The majority ruling, written by O’Connor, strengthened Title IX and its legitimacy for those suffering from sexual harassment.  O’Connor was recognized for her time and leadership on the Court when President Barack Obama presented her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

Sandra Day O’Connor’s journey to being appointed the first female Supreme Court Justice was that of a journey through a labyrinth.  She rose to every challenge and exceeded it, graduating high school and law school early and being ranked third in her law school class.  Not only did she break the glass ceiling when she entered the male dominated Courtroom and stood for what she believed in, she broke a glass ceiling earlier in her career when she was appointed the first female Majority Leader for any State Senate.

I vividly remember the first time I learned about O’Connor.  I was a junior in high school taking AP US History, and one of my teacher’s last lectures was on female leaders we learned about throughout the course. Many prominent names were discussed: Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony, Alice Paul, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Sarah Palin to name a handful.  But the one who stuck out to me was Sandra Day O’Conner. Why?  Because she was the first female to rise to the highest position in one of the three branches of federal government.  Two of the three branches of American government have had female leaders, and it is time that the executive has one, too.

O’Conner continues to be an inspirational figure to me because of how she came to be such a successful female leader.  She “pulled herself up from her boot straps” as she worked for everything she accomplished—nothing was handed to her.  She graduated high school at 16.  She graduated law school in two years.  She graduated third in her law school class.  She became the first female Majority Leader in any State Senate.  She was appointed the first female Supreme Court Justice.  She earned everything.

As a woman who hopes to be as successful as Sandra Day O’Connor, she continually inspires me to work hard and earn everything on my own merit.  She inspires me to enter the labyrinth of male-dominated fields and to break every glass ceiling that women face.  She inspires me to be a female leader no matter what I do in life.