The First and Last of Her Kind

Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg preparing to address a meeting of the Congressional Women’s Caucus, Washington, D.C., 2001
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images
Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg preparing to address a meeting of the Congressional Women’s Caucus, Washington, D.C., 2001

It was reassuring to find Evan Thomas’s biography of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the New York Times best-seller list this spring, however briefly. It was evidence that the country has not forgotten Justice O’Connor, now thirteen years into retirement and living with dementia—the same disease that took her husband, whose illness prompted her premature departure from the Court, and from her position as the most powerful woman in America.

Her name isn’t heard often these days—certainly not at the Court, which she dominated for years from her seat at its ideological center, but where her distinctive brand of center-right pragmatism quickly lost its purchase after her retirement. Her replacement in January 2006 by the hard-right Justice Samuel Alito, nominated by President George W. Bush, has proved to be one of the most consequential seat swaps in modern Supreme Court history. During a panel discussion a decade ago, O’Connor observed with characteristic bluntness that her legacy at the Court was being “dismantled.” How did she feel about that, her interviewer asked. “What would you feel?” O’Connor countered. “I’d be a little bit disappointed. If you think you’ve been helpful, and then it’s dismantled, you think, ‘Oh, dear.’ But life goes on. It’s not always positive.”

Three women sit on the Supreme Court today, a fact that appears completely ordinary to a generation without any memory of the thunderclap that was President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of O’Connor in July 1981. But those of a certain age, particularly women, know where they were when they heard that the president was naming a woman to the Supreme Court. I well remember the breath-snatching—if journalistically unprofessional—thrill I felt on the first Monday of that October when, from my place in the press row as a reporter for The New York Times, I watched the first female justice assume her seat. Hers was the first Supreme Court confirmation hearing to be televised. According to Thomas, nine out of ten television sets in America were tuned to it, amounting to more than 100 million viewers.

Decades before Internet memes turned Ruth Bader Ginsburg into the Notorious RBG, O’Connor was the first Supreme Court justice as rock star. From the moment she took the bench she was a figure of history—well captured first on the eve of her retirement by Joan Biskupic in her biography Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice (2005) and now, with historical perspective and access to an illuminating trove of private papers, by Evan Thomas, the author of several biographies who occasionally wrote about the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.