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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Sandra Day O'connor: The First

Sandra Day O'Connor, 1982
Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Sandra Day O'Connor, 1982

Stream now with the PBS App through Jan. 2, 2024

For 191 years, the Supreme Court of the United States was populated only by men. When President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor as the first female justice in 1981, the announcement dominated the news. Time Magazine’s cover proclaimed “Justice At Last,” and she received unanimous Senate approval.

During her more than two decades on the Supreme Court, O’Connor was the critical swing vote on cases involving some of the 20th century’s most controversial issues, including race, gender and reproductive rights — and she cast the decisive vote in Bush v. Gore. Based on "First: Sandra Day O’Connor" by Evan Thomas, this biographical portrait recounts the life of a pioneering woman who both reflected and shaped an era.

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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Trailer | Sandra Day O'Connor: The First

Born in 1930 in El Paso, Texas, O’Connor grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona, where one was judged more by ability than gender. “She never got the message that there were limits to what she could accomplish,” biographer Linda Hirshman says.

After graduating near the top of her class at Stanford Law School, she could not convince a single law firm to interview her, so she turned to volunteer work and public service. Determined to have both a career and a family, she was fortunate to find a supportive partner in John O’Connor, whom she met when they were fellow students at Stanford Law. They married in 1952. It was through John that Sandra first became involved with Arizona's Republican Party and embarked on the path that ultimately would lead her to the Supreme Court.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Chapter 1 | Sandra Day O'Connor: The First

Tough, exacting, intensely competitive, O’Connor was also hard-working, gracious, funny, and warm — a combination that inspired both admiration and respect, and facilitated her steady ascension from precinct captain to Arizona's Assistant Attorney General to Majority Leader of the Arizona Senate.

By the time President Reagan had the opportunity to make good on his campaign promise to name a woman to the Supreme Court, O'Connor was a state judge, and so well-regarded and well-connected in Republican circles that it hardly mattered that she'd never heard a federal case.

Sandra Day O'Connor in the Rose Garden with President Reagan, July, 15, 1981.
ourtesy of Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
Sandra Day O'Connor in the Rose Garden with President Reagan, July, 15, 1981.

Ironically, the only objection to her nomination came from fellow Republicans, an increasingly powerful and vocal faction of Christian conservatives who wanted to restore “family values” to America.

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Opposed to the ERA and bent on overturning a host of liberal Supreme Court decisions — especially Roe v. Wade, the controversial 1973 decision that established a federal right to abortion — the party’s far-right flank had forced social issues to the top of the Republican agenda, including a vow to appoint anti-abortion judges at all levels. To appease the educated female voters the party had lost in the bargain, Reagan had offered to put a woman on the Supreme Court and thought O’Connor would be a safe bet.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Sandra Day O’Connor: First Woman on the Supreme Court

The fact that she was meant to be a symbol was not lost on O'Connor. She inhabited the role at times with relish and always with aplomb. Her schedule of public appearances was so frantic, some suspected she had a twin. But she wanted to be remembered for her work on the bench — work she approached with care, caution, and the firm conviction that the role of the Court was to provide a limited check on the powers of government.

Left to right: Justice John Paul Stevens, Justice Lewis Powell, Justice Harry Blackmun, Justice Byron White, Chief Justice Warren Burger, President Ronald Reagan, Justice William Brennan, Justice Thurgood Marshall, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Potter Stewart during a reception for the U.S. Supreme Court Justices in the State Dining Room. Oct. 1, 1985.
Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
Left to right: Justice John Paul Stevens, Justice Lewis Powell, Justice Harry Blackmun, Justice Byron White, Chief Justice Warren Burger, President Ronald Reagan, Justice William Brennan, Justice Thurgood Marshall, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Potter Stewart during a reception for the U.S. Supreme Court Justices in the State Dining Room. Oct. 1, 1985.

Social change, she believed, was a matter for legislatures; and she soon found herself increasingly at odds with the political party to which she had long since pledged her allegiance. Over the course of her long tenure, as a succession of Republican administrations fulfilled the party's objective to make the Court more conservative, O’Connor emerged as its center of gravity: the crucial swing vote on the issues that mattered most to most Americans.

Sandra Day O'Connor with President Reagan in the Oval Office, 1981.
Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
Sandra Day O'Connor with President Reagan in the Oval Office, 1981.

Bringing to bear negotiation skills honed as a legislator, she wielded her power to routinely and strategically press her fellow justices on both sides of the aisle to smooth out the doctrinaire edges of their opinions. To some, she seemed more politician than jurist: a judge without the courage of her convictions.

To others, she was a welcome agent of comity and consensus. What no one disputed was that at a time of increasing polarization, the voice of the Court was often O’Connor’s — and more often than not, she spoke for the moderate majority.

Where Sandra Day O’Connor Stood on Key Supreme Court Decisions

For more than 30 years, the first female justice determined the outcome of the court’s most significant decisions. View the timeline

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor in the Justices' Conference Room, 1993.
Courtesy of Ken Heinen, Collection of the Supreme Court
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor in the Justices' Conference Room, 1993.

About the Participants:

  • Viet Dinh served as a law clerk to Sandra Day O’Connor.
  • Linda Greenhouse is a New York Times contributor who covered the Supreme Court for the paper for 30 years. She is also the author of "Becoming Justice Blackmun, Before Roe v. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling" (with Reva B. Siegel), and "The Burger Court and the Rise of the Judicial Right," with Michael J. Graetz.
  • Linda Hirshman is an attorney and author of "Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World."
  • Jason Johnson is Associate Professor of Communication and Journalism, Morgan State University.
  • Ruth McGregor is Sandra Day O'Connor's former clerk at the Supreme Court and a longtime friend.
  • Melissa Murray is the Frederick I. and Grace Stokes Professor of Law, New York University.
  • Scott O'Connor is Sandra Day O’Connor’s eldest son.
  • Rick Perlstein is author of "Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of American Consensus" and "Reaganland: America's Right Turn, 1976-1980."
  • Evan Thomas is author of “First: Sandra Day O'Connor.”
  • Osceola (Oscie) Thomas is an attorney and collaborated with her husband, Evan Thomas, on “First: Sandra Day O'Connor.”

Watch On Your Schedule:

“Sandra Day O’Connor: The First” is available to stream with the PBS App through Jan. 2, 2024.

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Join The Conversation: AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is on Facebook, Instagram, #AmericanExperiencePBS

Credits: Written and directed by Michelle Ferrari and executive produced by Cameo George. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is a production of GBH Boston.

“As the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor was meant to be a symbol,” says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Executive Producer Cameo George. “However, once on the bench, she often defied expectations and was able to use her vote to significantly influence the direction of the Court and our country for nearly 25 years.”