1981 - Making History


The First Woman

For 191 years, every Justice on the Supreme Court had been a man. And then, in 1981, all that changed when President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to the highest court in the land. She won confirmation easily: The Senate voted 99-0 in her favor. O’Connor found herself buried under a mountain of mail when she started her job—much of it from ordinary women who were thrilled finally to see a woman on the Court.

During more than 24 years as a Justice, she earned respect for being fair, impartial and independent. She also became known as a “swing vote” who often cast the deciding vote in a case, although she herself has called this “ridiculous.” She has said “all nine people have to cast a vote, and there’s no way to single out one as being more significant [than] another. It doesn’t work that way.” But Justice O’Connor sided with the majority in many important Court rulings, including ones on civil rights and voting rights. She also wrote the opinion in a Court decision that made it easier for women to prove sexual harassment in the workplace. Sandra Day O’Connor served on the nation’s highest court until she retired in 2006.