O'Connor leaves promising legacy for women in law
July 6, 2005
Sandra Day O'Connor became the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice thanks to the women's movement. And it will be the women's movement and other progressive movements -- not President Bush's nominee -- that ultimately will determine the court's direction.
O'Connor herself recognizes her debt to feminism. "In my lifespan, I have witnessed a sea change in public attitudes about women," she wrote in her book "The Majesty of the Law." "I was a beneficiary of the changing attitudes about 'women's work.'"
When she graduated from Stanford Law School in 1952 near the top of her class, women lawyers were rare, and O'Connor's only offer from a national law firm was for a job as legal secretary.
Last year, in comparison, 48 percent of law students were women, according to the American Bar Association.
An invaluable role model, O'Connor deserves a hefty thanks for such progress. But her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981 came in the context of a nationwide movement for women's rights.
No struggle, however, had more impact on O'Connor appointment than the push for an Equal Rights Amendment that would have extended the U.S. Constitution's protections to women.
Congress approved the ERA in 1972 with strong bipartisan support. The measure seemed slated for quick ratification by the states but stalled because of a conservative backlash.
In 1980, candidate Ronald Reagan broke with two previous Republican presidents and opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. The Republican Party platform also called for repeal of Roe v. Wade.
The women's movement was up in arms. On Oct. 14, 1980, three weeks before the election, Reagan sought to quell the furor and promised that, if elected, he would nominate a woman to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Reagan was elected but received 8 percentage points fewer votes from women than men, the beginning of the gender gap that plagues Republican presidential candidates to this day. Recognizing his "woman problem," Reagan nominated O'Connor when a position on the Supreme Court opened in 1981.
In her book, O'Connor notes: "It is important to realize that we almost never work on a blank slate; legal change is most frequently a delayed response to changes in the agenda of the people."
In the swirl of speculation surrounding President Bush's possible moves, history provides an essential lesson. In the long run, it will be the people's movements that shape our nation's future.
Just ask Justice O'Connor.
Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-based journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.