It’s been more than 40 years since our mother made history.
Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female associate justice in the nearly 200-year history of the Supreme Court. The 1981 Senate vote to confirm was 99-0, which seems unfathomable in today’s politically polarized times.
Twelve years later, in 1993, Mom welcomed the second female associate justice in the history of the high court when the Senate confirmed Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also by an impressive margin, 96-3.
This was Bipartisanship with a capital “B.”
And now, President Biden has signed legislation to erect statues of these two women legal pioneers somewhere on the U.S. Capitol grounds after unanimous consent in the Senate and an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in the House.
The overwhelming support for the statues of these two women with very different backgrounds speaks to something missing from much of today’s politics: respect for the other. Disagreeing without being disagreeable. Understanding that the other point of view is not intended to ruin the country.
Different backgrounds, but shared experiences
The two women being honored came from very different backgrounds – the Lazy B Ranch along the Arizona-New Mexico border and Brooklyn, New York; Republican Majority Leader in the Arizona Senate and co-founder of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU.
They may have had distinct philosophies of jurisprudence, but after Justice Ginsburg joined Mom on the bench they were bound together by their shared experiences as women pioneers.
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When Mom graduated from Stanford Law School, she applied for a position as a lawyer with the firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, only to be told she might find employment as a legal secretary – if she could type fast enough.
Yet it was U.S. Attorney General William French Smith – a Gibson, Dunn partner – who recommended her for the Supreme Court. Many years later, while speaking during the law firm’s 100th anniversary, Mom said, “All is forgiven.”
For Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who arrived at Harvard Law School in 1956, it was the dean who reportedly asked all nine women students to explain how they justified taking a place that would otherwise have gone to a man.
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And when they were the two women among nine justices on the Supreme Court, Mom was able to share her own breast cancer experience with Justice Ginsburg, who was diagnosed with colon cancer. Mom’s advice: have chemo on Fridays so the nausea will have eased by Monday’s oral arguments.
O’Connor knew how critical common ground was
There’s a thread that has run through our mother’s life.
She always seemed able to find the common ground in a divided country, whether during her years in the Arizona Legislature or navigating complicated issues that came before the justices at the highest court in the land.
In the Arizona Senate, she was legendary for hosting potluck parties at our home, with Dad pouring the favorite drinks of her colleagues, and everyone dancing to country western music. That made it harder for those same colleagues to treat her, and each other, poorly on the Senate floor. More was accomplished.
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Her work didn’t end there. After retiring from the Supreme Court, Mom was presciently concerned about the lack of understanding about our system of government, and the disengagement and discord that inevitably follows.
She founded iCivics to ensure that all young Americans have the knowledge and will to participate in our unique experiment in self-governance.
That’s why mom focused on civics education
Since then, iCivics has become the nation’s premier nonprofit provider of and advocate for high quality, nonpartisan, engaging civic education. Each year, iCivics serves up to 145,000 teachers and nine million students free of charge, which equates to the majority of our nation’s middle and high school students.
Of all her accomplishments, Justice O’Connor considers iCivics to be her most important work and greatest legacy.
In a politically polarized country, the civic education that Mom has been promoting is an essential tool to move the country forward by teaching students to find common ground, not to simply score political points but to keep government – federal, state and local – in a constant search to serve the common good.
The statues of these two pioneering women will count among a relatively small number of other similarly honored great women in U.S. history. This is a special honor for both our family and the Ginsburg family.
It is our hope that their impact on future generations is enduring and significant.
We want women and girls to see their futures as limitless, and that all Americans will be inspired to learn about and engage with the great nation they served.
Jay O’Connor is a software industry executive. Scott O’Connor is a commercial real estate developer.