SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR — the first woman ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and who launched her career in the Bay Area — died Friday at 93.

A release from the Supreme Court reported the cause of death to be complications related to advanced dementia, “probably Alzheimer’s, and a respiratory illness.”

Prior to making history, O’Connor got her start in the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office in 1952 when she agreed to work without pay. Despite graduating from Stanford University with a bachelor of art degree in 1950 and then getting her law degree in 1952, she faced discrimination in the field due to her gender.

During a 2012 TEDxMidwest interview, she shared the story of how she searched for employment when law firms flat-out told her they would never hire a woman.

YouTube video
Sandra Day O'Connor talks about her start in practicing law during a 2012 interview. (TEDx Talks/YouTube)

“I graduated and then tried to get a job. There were all these placement notices on the bulletin board at Stanford — ‘Stanford Law graduates! Call us. We want to talk to you about a job.’ — I called every single one of them, and not one of them would even talk to me. Why? I was a woman, and they didn’t want to hire a woman,” O’Connor shared.

But then she learned about San Mateo County District Attorney Louis Dematteis, whose reputation for hiring fairness sent her on a journey from her family home in Arizona to the San Francisco Bay Area.

“And he said, ‘Well, I think you’d do fine. I did have a woman (who worked for me) and liked her, but I’m not funded to hire another deputy right now, so I don’t have the money to pay you anything,’” O’Connor recalled. “He walked me through the office and said, ‘As you can see, I don’t have an office to put you in either.’”

From cattle to the courtroom

O’Connor returned home and sat down to write a letter to Dematteis describing her life growing up on a cattle farm and what she could bring to the table. In that letter, which is archived at the San Mateo County Historical Association, she offered to work without pay if he would give her the chance.

“This thumb nail sketch of my life and times is presented in hopes that you are presently badly overworked and in need of a young, capable employee who can help lift the heavy yoke of responsibility from your shoulders,” O’Connor wrote in the letter provided courtesy of the Historical Association. “ ... A woman can be a valuable asset in a District Attorney’s office.”

O’Connor was offered her first job as a lawyer working in the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office without pay in an office she shared with the DA’s secretary.

Dematteis then offered O’Connor her first job as a lawyer, and she shared an office with his secretary. From there, her career blossomed. According to historical exhibitions from the U.S. Supreme Court, O’Connor worked as a civilian attorney for Army Quartermaster Corps in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1954, when her husband, John Jay O’Connor, was stationed there.

After returning to the States in 1957, O’Connor started her own law office in Phoenix, and the couple had three sons, Scott, Brian and Jay — all born within six years. With the birth of her second son, she left the law practice to focus on raising her young family while also becoming deeply involved in local politics.

By 1965, O’Connor returned to work as a full-time assistant state attorney general and was appointed to a vacant Arizona state Senate seat in 1969. She was re-elected twice, and as a legislator worked to change state laws that discriminated against women.

O’Connor served as a trial judge on the Maricopa County Superior Court from 1975 to 1979 when Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt appointed her to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

Then in 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan vowed to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court — a promise he fulfilled in 1981, when as president he nominated O’Connor to fill the seat vacated by retired Justice Potter Stewart. The U.S. Senate unanimously agreed.

Key decisions

While known as a moderate conservative Republican, one of O’Connor’s most well-known Supreme Court decisions during her 25-year tenure included the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, when she ruled that before viability — considered to be when a fetus could survive outside the womb — states could not impose an undue burden on pregnant women seeking abortion care.

Another included McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, regarding the display of the Ten Commandments at two Kentucky courthouses; O’Connor’s vote was key in the decision that it violated the principle of separation between church and state. O’Connor eventually retired from the high court in 2006.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. stated in a media release that O’Connor blazed an historic trail as the nation’s first female justice.

Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn in as Associate Supreme Court Justice by Chief Justice Warren Burger while her husband John O'Connor looks on, Sept. 25, 1981. (U.S. National Archives via Wikipedia, CC BY)

“She met that challenge with undaunted determination, indisputable ability, and engaging candor,” Roberts continued. “We at the Supreme Court mourn the loss of a beloved colleague, a fiercely independent defender of the rule of law, and an eloquent advocate for civics education. And we celebrate her enduring legacy as a true public servant and patriot.”

In a release from California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, Newsom described O’Connor as someone with a strong voice for judicial independence and the rule of law.

“Justice O’Connor opened doors for generations of women in politics and public service, and her enduring legacy is an inspiration to all of us,” Newsom said. “Our thoughts are with her family, colleagues and friends during this time of loss.”

O’Connor is survived by her three sons, Scott (Joanie) O’Connor, Brian (Shawn) O’Connor, and Jay (Heather) O’Connor; six grandchildren: Courtney, Adam, Keely, Weston, Dylan and Luke; and her beloved brother and co-author, Alan Day Sr. Her husband, John Jay O’Connor, preceded her in death in 2009.

O’Connor authored five books: “Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest” (2002), “The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice” (2002), “Chico” (2005), “Finding Susie” (2009), and “Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court” (2013).

Plans regarding Justice O’Connor’s funeral will be released when available.