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Flirting with justice

Thirty years ago, Sandra Day O'Connor made history by becoming the first female justice on the Supreme Court — and opened doors for wise women everywhere.

September 25, 2011|By Meg Waite Clayton

After his first argument before Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, one prominent Southern lawyer was certain the Supreme Court would rule in his favor — because, he said, she was "flirting" with him. The comment speaks volumes about the speaker, but it also says something about the person who weaved her way through a male-dominated world to become the first female justice 30 years ago today, and served 25 years on the court.

O'Connor wasn't chosen because she looked the part, but the fact that her pearls and lavender suits with skirts wouldn't alarm the public wasn't inconsequential. "It was simply a matter of political reality that … a woman had to appear and act 'feminine,'" she has said. "People gave up their traditional notions only grudgingly."

She worked as a lawyer first at a county district attorney's office, having been offered only a legal secretary's job at private firms despite graduating near the top of her class at Stanford Law School. She followed her husband overseas when he finished school. She had her first child three days after being sworn in to the Arizona bar and then, because private Arizona law firms were no more hospitable to women than California ones, she opened her own firm.

She spent five years on the "mommy track" when she lost her sitter and couldn't work child-care miracles, using the time to get more involved in politics and the Junior League. She has said it never occurred to her or her husband that he might stay home while she worked.

Four years after O'Connor returned to work, she was appointed — by a Republican — to fill an Arizona state Senate seat, eventually becoming the first female majority leader in a state senate. She was serving on the Arizona Court of Appeals — as a Democratic appointee — when the Reagan administration sent Ken Starr to interview her for the Supreme Court. She served Starr a salmon mousse salad she'd prepared for the occasion.

I'd just begun my first year of law school as a summer starter at the University of Michigan when O'Connor was nominated in 1981. I'd grown up being excluded from Little League and shop, cooking biscuits in home-ec (which had nothing to do with economics) with no real idea things might be different. It's a hard thing to see as wrong something that's always been the case. Even when I graduated from law school in 1984, no American woman had run an Olympic marathon or become surgeon general or attorney general or poet laureate.

But I was sure O'Connor's appointment was the first major drop in what would become a bucketful of women stepping into leadership roles. Never mind the letters she received saying things like "Back to your kitchen and home female! This is a job for a man and only he can make the rough decisions." The world had changed.

That was a generation ago. It surprises me in retrospect that I didn't weep with joy when O'Connor was sworn in. It was something that ought to happen and so of course it had. I was a lot younger then and considerably more naive. No professor had taught me what to say to clients remarking on my breasts or asking me to fetch coffee. I hadn't realized how important membership in men's clubs I could not join was to generating legal business, or even that generating business was more important to advancement than lawyerly skills. I'd failed to realize what a powerful marketing tool a low golf handicap is, or that a husband who does laundry is as necessary as he is rare.

I did weep when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was sworn in as the second female justice a dozen years later, and Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House 15 years after that. The subsequent rounds of barrier breaking have taken a long time.

The pipeline is slow and leaky, to be sure, but progress is being made. At the time of O'Connor's appointment, only three women had ever served full Senate terms; now we have 17 female senators. Only one woman had ever been chief executive of a Fortune 500 company; there are currently 11. When Ronald Reagan took office, 48 of 700 federal judges were women, up from 10 just four years earlier; now women make up 26% of state and 22% of federal judges, and a third of the Supreme Court. Role models matter. Opportunities matter.

And changes in the law matter.

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