Sandra Day O'Connor
by Kathleen K. Archer
My subject for the Century of Women’s Progress Quilt Project is Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the US Supreme Court. I selected Justice O’Connor because of her historic accomplishments—as a woman, a jurist, and a human.
Sandra Day was born into a ranching family that lived in a remote border area straddling Arizona and New Mexico. There, the Day family ran a dry 200,000-acre cattle ranch. Young Sandra worked long hours in difficult conditions, often alongside ranch hands, wrangling cattle, fixing equipment, hunting for food, and participating in the hardscrabble world in which she was born.
Early on Sandra’s mother and father recognized her prodigious intellect. Since the nearest schooling was over 30 miles away, Sandra’s parents sent her to live with her grandmother in Texas. There, she excelled in school and was accepted to Stanford University where she studied economics. After graduating with high honors, she attended Stanford Law School.
Sandra attempted to work for a law firm after graduating from Stanford Law School. As was the case with many women before her, and despite her academic successes, she was rejected because of her gender. Undeterred, she opened her own law firm in a strip mall in Arizona. Sandra’s toughness, intellect and gregarious personality were a winning combination. She climbed the social and professional ladders in Phoenix. She was appointed to the state senate, ultimately elected twice, and later selected as a judge for the Arizona State Court of Appeals.
Fortune continued to shine on this industrious woman. During his presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan promised to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court. When a vacancy arose in 1981, President Reagan fulfilled this promise by nominating Sandra Day O’Connor. After 25 years of service, Justice O’Connor left the Court in 2006 to take care of her ailing husband, John O’Connor. What I find most extraordinary about Justice O'Connor was her tough but fair decision-making processes and her balanced, thoughtful positions on controversial social issues. Though not willing to overturn Roe v. Wade, Justice O’Connor was considered by pro-life advocates as centrist, repeatedly voting to support women’s issues. As the Supreme Court became more conservative, Justice O’Connor was often the swing vote, making her a moderating voice on the bench.
The goal of my quilt is to honor Sandra Day O’Connor in two significant aspects of her life. The first is her appointment to the Supreme Court. I quilt her portrait in judicial robes and jabot with the red draperies found in the Supreme Court. The second is as a woman in an often male-dominated profession. I exaggerated the rough quality of her hands to identify her as a ranch girl who was not a stranger to manual labor as a young woman. She is truly a renaissance woman.
(First by Evan Thomas, cover photograph used as basis for this quilt).