Sandra Day O'Connor shares memories at Utah women's conference

Published October 30, 2006 3:00 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Posted: 2:57 PM- Harry Day had hoped to go to Stanford University, but he had to take over the Lazy B family ranch in southern Arizona instead. But he sent his daughter there.

Sandra Day loved the California school and was so inspired by a law professor who taught one of her undergraduate classes that she decided to go to law school, even though she wasn't quite sure she'd do with a law degree.

As it turned out, Sandra Day O'Connor practiced law and served as a state judge until, in 1981, she became the first woman named a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now 76 and retired from the court, O'Connor shared her memories Monday in a speech at the annual Utah Women's Conference in Salt Lake City.

She recalled being honored but nervous when President Ronald Reagan nominated her to the high court. She felt a bad job on her part could close opportunities to other women.

"It's wonderful to be the first at something, but you don't want to be the last," O'Connor said. She tackled the job by applying the Lazy B work ethic: When something broke it had to be repaired with whatever materials were on hand "You just had to make things work," she said. "It taught me a certain amount of independence. I learned to work hard, to reach practical solutions." O'Connor began college at 16 and was one of the few women in law school. After graduation, she married classmate John Jay O'Connor III and began job hunting.

Few opportunities were available for woman lawyers in 1952. One large law firm in Los Angeles offered her a job as a legal secretary, saying clients would be unwilling to accept a female attorney.

O'Connor finally found a job as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo County in California. From there, she went to Germany with her husband, who had been drafted, for three years and then to Phoenix. She worked in private practice, then took five years off to stay home with her three children.

After a stint with the Arizona Attorney General's Office, O'Connor served in the state senate until she was elected a trial court judge. Next came appointment to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

Two years later, in 1981, U.S. Attorney General William French Smith - who had been a member of the Los Angeles law firm that offered her a secretarial job - called with the news that she was being considered for a position on the high court. She joked, "You mean, as a secretary?" The position proved easier to get than a job as a lawyer had been years earlier: the Senate confirmed O'Connor's appointment unanimously.

O'Connor told the hundreds of listeners at Monday's speech that although women still have the primary responsibility for child care and housework in most cases, the situation has improved. She is thankful, she said, for her supportive family and the opportunity to have a wonderful career.

As for differences in how male and female justices do the job, O'Connor said: "At the end of the day, a wise old man and a wise old woman will reach the same decision." pmanson@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">pmanson@sltrib.com

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