Evan Thomas, author of First: Sandra Day O’Connor discussed the book at a recent event hosted by AU School of Public Affairs’ Women & Politics Institute (WPI). He was joined by his wife, Oscie, a collaborator on the book, and WPI Executive Director Betsy Fischer Martin.
“I was fascinated by the level of access that the Thomas' had to her papers, her former law clerks, and even her personal correspondence and diaries,” said Fischer Martin, who moderated the conversation. “She clearly wanted her story told in a thorough and thoughtful manner.”
During the event, the Thomas' talked about how Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court and a trailblazer throughout her life. He described her childhood growing up on a Texas ranch, where she developed a toughness that served her well later in life. She was only 17 when she went to Stanford University, and she was one of only a few women in her 1952 law school graduating class.
Although O’Connor did not embrace the label of feminist, she did come to support the cause of women’s rights. However, when she realized the ERA would lose on the floor, O’Connor let it die in committee.
“As majority leader, she amended every gender-based law at the state level,” said Thomas. “Instead of staging a big showy fight, she was very practical.”
The big scoop in Thomas' book was the revelation that Chief Justice William Rehnquist proposed to O’Connor when the two were dating in the 1950s, although she ended up marrying another fellow law student, John O’Connor. The discovery, made through reading old love letters, was news to O'Connor's family. The author also noted that O’Connor battled cancer while on the bench in 1998 but never missed an oral argument and worked through her chemotherapy treatments.
Thomas touched on many personal, practical, and political aspects of O’Connor’s life and legacy on the court during the event.
“I hope the audience gained a deeper understanding of Justice O’Connor as person - how her life as really a ‘girl in a man’s world’ shaped her thinking on gender equality and her own ambitions,” said Fischer Martin.