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New York Times
2 Dec 2023
Wilson Wong

NextImg:5 Books to Read About Sandra Day O’Connor

Before there were the justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett, there was Sandra Day O’Connor.

Justice O’Connor, who died on Friday at 93, broke the judiciary’s glass ceiling when she became the first woman on the United States Supreme Court. Appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, she served for 24 years before stepping down to care for her ailing husband.

She was often a swing vote on polarizing issues before the court. She weighed in on abortion access, affirmative action and voting rights, and cast a decisive vote on Bush v. Gore, the case that delivered the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000. That position at one point earned her the title of the most powerful woman in the United States.

To learn more about Justice O’Connor’s life, career and legacy, take a look at these books.

First: Sandra Day O’Connor, by Evan Thomas

Thomas interviewed O’Connor’s colleagues and used extensive archival footage, including her papers, letters and diaries, to paint an intimate portrait. The account offers important insight into a woman whose professional life may have felt to some overshadowed by the women who followed her on the bench.

Readers see a justice who was aware of the significance of her position, and who knew what she wanted her legacy to be. As Jeffrey Toobin put it in the Book Review: “While still a justice and in robust health, she gave instructions to her sons about the public portion of her funeral, writing, ‘I hope I have helped pave the pathway for other women who have chosen to follow a career.’” (2019)

Read our review

Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest, by Sandra Day O’Connor and H. Alan Day

O’Connor and her brother, Day, joined forces to reminisce about growing up on their family’s cattle ranch on the Arizona-New Mexico border. As Linda Greenhouse wrote in her review, “To Eastern, urban sensibilities, her early life is not only exotic but nearly impossible to reconcile with the Sandra Day O’Connor the public knows: the prim and button-down onetime president of the Phoenix Junior League, at home at formal dinners and on country club golf courses, who grew up to become the first woman on the United States Supreme Court.” (2002)

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Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World, by Linda Hirshman

Hirshman’s book is a detailed account of the time that O’Connor and Ginsburg, two of the most influential women in recent United States history, spent together. “For anyone interested in the court, women’s history or both, the story of Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, their separate routes to the Supreme Court and what they accomplished during the more than 12 years they spent together is irresistible,” Greenhouse wrote in her review. “Did Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg really change the world? Or did they make it all the way to the Supreme Court, as the first and second women ever to serve there, because the world had changed?” (2015)

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Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court, by Sandra Day O’Connor

O’Connor was in a historical, reflective mode here, taking a look at the origins of the institution whose modern history she helped define. As Michiko Kakutani wrote in her review, “The reason to read ‘Out of Order’ is to get Justice O’Connor’s succinct, snappy account of how today’s court — so powerful, so controversial and so frequently dissected by the media — evolved from such startlingly humble and uncertain beginnings that it initially seemed like a jerry-built enterprise constructed on entirely ad hoc principles.” (2013)

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The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, by Jeffrey Toobin

Drawing on interviews with justices and clerks, Toobin, a former New Yorker staff writer and CNN legal analyst, covered about three decades in the history of the court under Chief Justice William Rehnquist. As David Margolick wrote in the Book Review, “O’Connor was clearly Toobin’s most important source. She’s also — readers can decide if it’s coincidental — his hero: the justice, he argues, who through her pragmatic, seat-of-the-pants jurisprudence single-handedly kept the court close to the American mainstream, particularly on matters like reproductive freedom and affirmative action.” (2007)