Sandra Day O'Connor

Photo: Dane Penland, Smithsonian Institution

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Sandra Day O'Connor (1930–present)
Raised on a cattle ranch, Sandra Day O'Connor was 19 when she started at Stanford Law School as one of five women in the class. While there, she served on the Stanford Law Review and gave birth to her first child three days before being sworn into the Arizona bar. In spite of her accomplishments at law school, being female meant no law firm in California was willing to hire her as a lawyer, although one firm did offer her a position as a legal secretary.

O'Connor worked intensely, beating out an incumbent judge for an appeals court position, and in 1981 became the first woman ever to serve on the Supreme Court—but Collins says that is not the only accomplishment O'Connor should be known for. "She was a swing vote between the right and left who took maximum advantage of her situation. Although she was never chief justice, her court was definitely the O'Connor court. And the direction she steered it was marked by the kind of sensible, moderate yet progressive spirit that has marked so many of the best women in American politics." She commanded so much respect during her career on the Court that legal affairs writer Jeffrey Toobin called her "the most important woman in American history."

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