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Honoring Sandra Day O’Connor: A Trailblazer for Women’s Representation in the Judiciary

By Nora Weiss


On December 1st, 2023, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor passed away at the age of 93, leaving behind an empowering and formidable legacy. Across the political aisle, Sandra Day O’Connor is remembered as a trailblazing leader who paved the way for countless women in the judiciary. Her undeniable competence on the court shifted the narrative surrounding women in the judiciary and set the stage for women successors.


The First

In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, breaking a centuries-long gender barrier. This unprecedented achievement not only marked a milestone in women’s history but also served as a catalyst for women’s representation in politics, government, and law.

Although she put forward an image of impenetrable confidence, Sandra Day O’Connor knew the stakes of being the first female Supreme Court justice. As she often said to her law clerks, “It’s good to be first, but you don’t want to be last.” 

For twelve years, Sandra Day O’Connor remained the sole woman serving on the Supreme Court. However, within her lifetime, she witnessed the transformation of the Supreme Court bench from one that was entirely dominated by men to one that is now approaching gender balance. In fact, Sandra Day O’Connor lived to see the nomination and appointment of five more women Justices. 


But Not The Last

Although women’s representation in the judiciary has improved significantly since Sandra Day O’Connor was first nominated to the Supreme Court, widespread gender disparities remain across all levels of the judicial branch. Despite the fact that women now attend law school at equal rates as men, female judges are still strikingly outnumbered by their male counterparts. Further, women only compose about one third of all federal and state judges across the United States. 

With five men and four women currently serving on the bench, the Supreme Court is nearing gender balance for the first time since its creation. Although this certainly warrants celebration, a quick glimpse into the history of the Supreme Court reveals a grim reality. Of all 116 justices that have ever served on the Supreme Court, only six have been women, accounting for a mere five percent.

To dismantle the structural barriers that prevent women from rising into judicial leadership roles, systems-level change is essential. For judicial positions that are selected via elections, implementing ranked choice voting could significantly increase the number of women judges. In regard to judicial roles that are selected by nomination, creating rules and regulations for gender-balanced appointments could prevent gender bias and promote equitable decision-making. By enacting crucial reforms such as these, it is possible to achieve and sustain women’s representation across every level of the judicial system. 


When Women Lead

In an article published in The Washington Post, Ruth Marcus admires Justice O’Connor’s judicious approach to the law, complimenting her unique ability to cultivate consensus, elevate common sense, and maintain the court’s perceived legitimacy among the American public. A moderate conservative, Sandra Day O’Connor was well-known for her tendency to take into account the real-world consequences of her decisions. Rather than adhering strictly to ideology, Justice O’Connor’s decisions typically echoed the social consensus of the American public. 

“Her legacy, on and off the bench, stands as a sharp rebuke to ideology and a testament to pragmatism,” wrote Marcus. “She was an inspiration to women, certainly, but also a model for all Americans, and for a court that has veered dangerously far from her example.” 

Although Sandra Day O’Connor originally gained prominence as a feminist icon, her relevance was sustained by the power she wielded within the nation’s highest court. It is no secret that Justice O’Connor served during one of the most critical periods in the Supreme Court’s history. Throughout her tenure, Sandra Day O’Connor was frequently confronted with pivotal cases concerning abortion, voting rights, affirmative action, religion, and environmental protection. Being the crucial swing vote in many of these groundbreaking cases, Justice O’Connor’s decisions very often determined the law of the land, earning her a well-deserved reputation as the most powerful woman in America. 


Leaving a Legacy

Sandra Day O’Connor’s legacy encompasses what she represented, what she fought for, and what she modeled. Over the course of her career, Sandra Day O’Connor championed civil discourse and promoted an intensely fact-based, logical, and prudent approach to the law. During an era when women’s capacity for leadership was severely doubted, Sandra Day O’Connor exemplified brilliance, wisdom, and competence, illustrating the need for more women in the judiciary and laying the groundwork for gender-balanced governance. 


Nora Weiss is the Communications Intern and a current undergraduate student at George Washington University, studying Political Science and Psychology. Nora has experience working in several nonprofit organizations devoted to protecting women’s rights and combating systemic racial inequality. As a passionate intersectional feminist, Nora intends to pursue a career in research and public policy in order to advance gender justice and health equity.


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