Sandra’s Days

The cowgirl from Arizona gets personal.

O’Connor’s incredible self-perception

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.—The media are not always kind to Sandra Day O’Connor. We rail at her for being an unpredictable swing voter. We dwell on her tetchy demeanor at oral argument. We decry her impossibly narrow legal opinions. We criticize her books. What we forget—what I forget—is that O’Connor single-handedly blew open more doors for young women than almost any human being alive on this planet. What we forget is that it’s possible to be baffled by her ideology, worried by her power at the center of the high court, anxious about many of her views, and still feel the impulse to hug her.

O’Connor is the keynote speaker this afternoon at a luncheon awarding a scholarship to a Charlottesville high-school senior, Anna Gulotta. Gulotta and the award finalists are being feted for their astonishing lives thus far. The scholarship was established in honor of Emily Couric, a former state senator from Virginia who died of cancer at the height of her career. O’Connor speaks without notes and tells the story of her own life.

It’s a life as alien to the young women here today as one from the Middle Ages.

Describing herself as a “cowgirl from Arizona,” O’Connor tells of graduating from Stanford Law School in 1952 (she doesn’t mention she was No. 3 in her class) and being unable to get a single law job. Her one interview at a big firm ended with the question, “Miss Day, do you type?” At which point she was grudgingly offered a secretary’s position. At which point she began inventing her own luck.

I am reminded of Walter Dellinger’s “Breakfast Table” post last year, when he insisted that O’Connor is perpetually misrepresented as an accident of history. O’Connor herself buys into that myth, either out of modesty or a misperception of her own ferocious strength. She says again today that “timing is everything,” that she “happened to come along at a precise time our nation was finally beginning to make opportunities available for women.” As Dellinger noted last spring, this line is just dead wrong. O’Connor was by no means the only woman Ronald Reagan could have appointed to the Supreme Court. But she would have been a force in the life of this nation, no matter what she did.

Whenever a glass ceiling appeared, O’Connor either ran around it or blasted through. Women like me, who have seldom faced that kind of discrimination, have no idea of the kind of strength required to deal with it. O’Connor uses the phrase, “I had a great time!” often today, and you know she really means it. She loved working at the DA’s office, and then opening her own practice, and then being a state senator, and then a judge. She loved doing it even when she had to, because no one would give her a regular job. When “disaster struck” and she lost her baby sitter, she just stayed at home and did volunteer work for five years. She felt, and still feels, that she was lucky. But with all the talk of fun and chance, you sense that she forgets how hard she fought to make those chances pay off.

The young women being honored today in Charlottesville have stratospheric GPAs, excel at sports, tutor, win science fairs, volunteer with the less fortunate. (And one is a bee-keeper!) They are all, as O’Connor puts it, “dazzlers.” In this sense they are her ideal American women: self-starting, energized, knowers-of-no-boundaries. They are what she has always been yet also products of what she has helped make possible for young women to become.

There are other ways in which Justice O’Connor and these young women—finalists for the scholarship—have nothing in common. These high-school seniors take for granted that they can have whatever job they choose. They know no other life. They fight for the underprivileged precisely because they have had little need to fight for themselves. And sitting in a room of ordinary women, you sense that the most striking part of O’Connor’s speech is that she really believes herself to be ordinary as well. She seems to have no idea that normal women just don’t push their babies around in strollers while knocking on doors for their political party and volunteering for 50 other causes.

There’s a contradiction implicit in O’Connor’s view of herself and her view of others. She is deeply impressed by these extraordinary young women yet unable to accept that she and they are truly unusual. This expectation of extraordinariness—natural, perhaps to one born on a ranch in Arizona and having the heart of a prizefighter—animates her strange hybrid jurisprudence, of infinite compassion in some cases and almost willful intolerance in others. One of the reasons audiences across America lose their hearts to Sandra Day O’Connor is that she seems to have no idea how extraordinary she is. One of the reasons people across America sometimes lose their cases before her is that she has no idea how ordinary the rest of us are.