Evan Thomas has written a biography of Sandra Day O’Connor that is well worth reading for many reasons. The title hints at the importance of her role as the first female Supreme Court Justice, but following her life story in many ways is to follow the part of United States history that occurs in her lifetime.
Born in El Paso in 1930, her life on a cattle ranch came at a time when girls were expected to grow up and settle into good marriages as gracious hostesses for ambitious husbands. She sets her sights on Stanford instead and graduates with high class rankings in her law school class only to face the fact that no law firm would interview her for a position since she was a woman.
The biography is an account of her finding a way to skirt the heavy glass ceiling to become the first female majority leader of a state senate, a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals, and finally the first female Supreme Court Justice. An amusing aside in the course of Reagan’s nomination to that court comes from Jim Baker’s account that concludes, “Nancy Reagan was on board. If she hadn’t been, we would not have done it.”
She appears to be the woman who can “have it all” as she entertains graciously first in their Arizona style home and then in Washington. Thomas describes her as having a mixture of elegance, wisdom, and toughness whether she is tending home fires or making difficult judicial decisions. For example, he quotes a New York Times article that pokes fun at government acronyms such as POTUS for the president and SCOTUS for the “nine men” who interpret the law. Sandra in her lighthearted letter to the editor says that for two years the court has not consisted of nine men and signs it FWOTSC for “first woman on the Supreme Court.” Her decisions strike a note of independent thought as she weighs them carefully rather than following a prescribed party line agenda.
Her husband John should get his due for his encouragement and support through her entire career. Their son Jay said of his father, “He walked away from a firm he loved, a city he loved, a practice he loved, and never gave it a second thought.” In their interviews with the author, their sons also supported the account that Sandra managed to give full support to her family as well as her career.
Evan Thomas gains authenticity with his research into first-hand accounts, journals of the participants, and interviews. This is a very good read, giving an authentic look at the life of the first female Supreme Court Justice as well as an interesting picture of the history that surrounded it and the workings of the court itself.