The first woman seated on the U.S. Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor, an associate justice from 1981 until 2006, received the Radcliffe Institute Medal on June 5 and spoke at the Radcliffe Day annual luncheon. Barbara Grosz, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, introduced O’Connor, who stepped to the lectern and announced, “She could have…just introduced me as an unemployed cowgirl.” (Grosz did mention that O’Connor, an Arizona native, was the first Radcliffe Institute Medalist who had been inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.)
O’Connor spoke approvingly of the nomination by President Barack Obama, J.D. ’91, of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. After noting that half of law students are female, but only 16 percent of equity partners in law firms “and 11 percent of Supreme Court justices” are, O’Connor asserted that “positions that have more power tend to have correspondingly fewer women.”
But she also observed that a century ago, these percentages had been approximately “zero percent,” and hailed the progress women had made in the legal profession since then. She described the “cult of domesticity” that branded women as intrinsically different from men in ways that disqualified them from legal practice. “Women were pure,” for example, she said, whereas “lawyers had to be morally flexible.” O’Connor summarized: “The view that women could not cut it as lawyers enjoyed an embarrassingly long shelf life in this country.” She drolly cited a “medical condition” that apparently disqualified a female aspirant to the bar: she had “two X chromosomes. One was OK, but the second ruled out practicing law.”
O’Connor praised the first woman to serve on a state supreme court, Florence Ellinwood Allen (1884-1966) of Ohio, whose name was mentioned as a potential Supreme Court appointee to both Franklin D. Roosevelt ’04 and Harry S. Truman. Truman demurred on naming Allen to the high court on the grounds that her presence would make the male justices uncomfortable: “They say they couldn't sit around with their robes off and their feet up and discuss the problems.” O’Connor’s rejoinder was that “I would have been able to tell President Truman that they all got comfortable pretty fast when I showed up.”
After graduating near the top of her class at Stanford Law School, O’Connor was at first unable even to get an interview for a job at a law firm—women were simply not being hired in the early 1950s. She finally did get an interview, but was told that the firm did not hire women associates—though if she could type, she might find work there as a legal secretary. Her first actual legal job was working for San Mateo County in California, where she began by volunteering to work without pay. But “I loved my work, pay or no pay,” she said.
Justice O’Connor expressed concern about a new generation of gender stereotypes, citing an article whose author “wrote that my opinions differed in a peculiarly ‘feminine’ way from those of my male colleagues.” She listed some allegedly “feminine” aspects of legal opinions, like compassion and evaluating facts in context, as opposed to applying abstract principles. “This new ‘feminism’ troubles me,” she stated, “because it so nearly echoes the Victorian myth of the true woman, which kept women out of positions for so long.”
In her own life, Justice O’Connor expressed satisfaction with the balance she has struck between her family and her judicial career. “I’ve enjoyed the growth of my grandchildren, as well as the legal subtleties of the ‘free exercise’ clause,” she said. She did take off five years from law when her children were young, and worried that it might be tough to get another job, as it had been so difficult when she began. “But,” she said, to laughter, “it seemed to work out reasonably well.”