“She’s a hero for our time, and this is the biography for our time.”—Walter Isaacson
She was born in 1930 in El Paso and grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona. At a time when women were expected to be homemakers, she set her sights on Stanford University. When she graduated near the top of her law school class in 1952, no firm would even interview her. But Sandra Day O’Connor’s story is that of a woman who repeatedly shattered glass ceilings—doing so with a blend of grace, wisdom, humor, understatement, and cowgirl toughness.
She became the first ever female majority leader of a state senate. As a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals, she stood up to corrupt lawyers and humanized the law. When she arrived at the United States Supreme Court, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, she began a quarter-century tenure on the Court, hearing cases that ultimately shaped American law. Diagnosed with cancer at fifty-eight, and caring for a husband with Alzheimer’s, O’Connor endured every difficulty with grit and poise.
Women and men who want to be leaders and be first in their own lives—who want to learn when to walk away and when to stand their ground—will be inspired by O’Connor’s example. This is a remarkably vivid and personal portrait of a woman who loved her family, who believed in serving her country, and who, when she became the most powerful woman in America, built a bridge forward for all women.
Praise for First
“Cinematic . . . poignant . . . illuminating and eminently readable . . . First gives us a real sense of Sandra Day O’Connor the human being. . . . Thomas gives O’Connor the credit she deserves.”—The Washington Post
“[A] fascinating and revelatory biography . . . a richly detailed picture of [O’Connor’s] personal and professional life . . . Evan Thomas’s book is not just a biography of a remarkable woman, but an elegy for a worldview that, in law as well as politics, has disappeared from the nation’s main stages.”—The New York Times Book Review
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“You need to expect anything out here.”
It takes a cowhand on horseback a full day to ride from one end of the Lazy B ranch to the other, across rock-strewn hills and through cactus-filled draws, over land primeval in its stony wildness. The ranch, which occupies about 250 square miles along the Arizona–New Mexico border, has its own mountain, a perfect cone visible from the chaise longue in her parents’ bedroom, where Sandra Day liked to curl up to read. As a girl, Sandra would climb Round Mountain with her father, careful to avoid the rattlesnakes. The future justice could stand at the peak and see and feel the vastness and ancientness, as well as the forbidding desolation and living wonder, of her family’s domain. “We thought of it as our own country,” Sandra Day O’Connor recalled of the ranch that had been in the Day family for more than a century.
Far-distant mountain ranges ring a swelling and undulating mesa. If the rains come in the winter, the land blooms with yellow and purple wildflowers in the spring. In the summer, a searing sun scorches the precious grass in the pastures. Volcanic hills are littered with boulders, “angry black and dark red,” as O’Connor vividly described in her memoir of the Lazy B—molten lava suddenly cooled as it burst forth from earth’s core. In the flatlands to the east, yucca plants stand as “sentinels” that are “weirdly beautiful.” Their stalks, when dry, “make good cattle prods, or fine lances for children’s war games.” No river runs through the Lazy B, but the Gila River, a tepid stream most of the year, a torrent in storms, skirts the northern edge. Canyons with chalky cliffs and cottonwood trees shelter fine picnic grounds. As a girl, Sandra would climb into the dark caves of prehistoric Indians or, hair flying, gallop her horse across the open range. On clear nights, she would stand with her family “in silent awe,” looking at the glittering constellations, past the sweep of the diaphanous Milky Way, into the universe beyond. Returning home from an all-day roundup in the pitch black of a moonless, cloudy night, she was guided by the tiny sparks, struck by horseshoe on rock, thrown off by the rider ahead.
Sandra Day was born on March 26, 1930, in the city of El Paso, Texas, the only city close enough—four hours by train—to have a proper hospital. The Arizona ranch house to which she was brought a couple of weeks later, after the two-hundred-mile trip, was a square, four-room adobe structure. Known as Headquarters, it stood eight miles from the main road. Visitors were announced by the cloud of dust they raised. The house had no running water, indoor plumbing, or electricity. Coal gas lamps lit the rooms; the bathroom was a wooden privy 75 yards downwind from the house. Harry and Ada Mae Day and their baby daughter, Sandra, slept in the house; the ranch’s four or five cowboys slept on the screened porch. Flies were everywhere. On still summer nights, when it was too hot to sleep, Sandra’s parents soaked her bedsheets in cool water. “It was no country for sissies,” O’Connor recalled. “We saw a lot of life and death there.”
Until she was nine years old, Sandra grew up as an only child. She had no neighboring playmates but also no shortage of fascinating and fearsome living creatures—animals, insects, and birds, including antelopes, javelinas, coyotes, bobcats, snakes, Gila monsters, desert tortoises, scorpions, and all manner of spiders. Most of them had teeth, horns, or poison, but Sandra tried to make some of them into pets. Until she was about four years old, Sandra liked to play with a bobcat named Bob, who would arch his back and growl around fresh meat but was otherwise reasonably domesticated, until he disappeared one night after raiding the chicken coop.
Over the years, Sandra collected various critters, including a sparrow hawk named Sylvester, who perched watchfully in the eaves and would splatter hawk droppings in her hair, and a desert tortoise that learned to wait by the icebox for food. “We tried keeping a baby coyote as a pet but learned that what the cowboys said was true: you cannot make a pet of a coyote,” Sandra recalled.
Aside from the cattle, the animals that mattered most were the horses. The cowboys gave them colorful names: Hysterectomy (“a great horse. She would carry a cowboy all day,” Sandra remembered), Scarhead, Swastika, Idiot, Hemorrhoid (“After riding him all day, you felt tired and bruised”), and Hell Bitch, who turned out to be a gentle horse, once broken. Sandra’s favorite was Chico. Unlike most horses, Chico would not run away after his rider was thrown or fell off, but rather wait patiently for Sandra to climb back on. In Lazy B, Sandra described what it was like to ride Chico as a young girl:
We moved together. I felt the horse’s every move. I was aware of his breath, his sweat. When he stopped to pee, the strong smell of urine enveloped us, and drops of liquid splattered my boots. When he expelled gas, I heard and felt it. I often talked to my horse while riding.
Often, during the heat of the day, Sandra would lie on the chaise in her parents’ bedroom, a book in her hands. Reading was the Day family pastime. Hungry for news of the world beyond his domain, Harry Day pored over week-old copies of the Los Angeles Times, Time, U.S. News & World Report, Fortune. His wife, Ada Mae, read Vogue, The New Yorker, House Beautiful, The Saturday Evening Post. Copies of National Geographic were stacked in piles in the corner or stuffed under the beds. As a girl, Sandra read The Book of Knowledge, Black Beauty, Mary Poppins. Her favorite books were the Nancy Drew series, about a girl detective who wore skirts, was confident and curious, and adored her powerful lawyer father.
One day, while she was reading a Nancy Drew mystery, her father interrupted her, saying, “Sandra, you’d better get your nose out of that book and come with me. I want to show you something.”
Sandra grumbled, but she dutifully put aside the book and climbed into her father’s Chevy pickup. They drove down a dirt road, to a place where vultures were circling. A small calf lay in the road, bleeding and groaning. Its rear end had been mostly chewed off by a coyote. “Let’s help it,” said Sandra, who was about ten years old at the time. “We can’t help this calf,” replied her father. He took the rifle off the gun rack behind the pickup’s front seat. “Oh, don’t shoot it,” protested Sandra. Her father aimed between the calf’s eyes and fired. The calf’s head jerked and he was still.
“DA, how could you?” Sandra asked. She called her father DA, pronounced Dee-Ay, like the letters. “It was the only kind thing we could do,” her father replied. “The calf was too far gone to live. Now we have to send Rastus out to find the mother cow.”
Rastus, whose real name was Rafael Estrada, was one of the Lazy B’s cowboys. An illegal immigrant from Mexico, he had arrived on the ranch as a chore boy and never left. He was small and crippled, he could not read or write, and he had no wife. But he was good at what he did—handling horses and livestock—and he had high standards. If you met them, you had his respect.
The next day, Rastus rode out to the pasture, took out his pocketknife, and sliced off most of the hide of the young dead calf. The mother cow was nearby, bawling for her dead calf, her udder swelling with unused milk. Rastus drove the cow back to headquarters and into the corral.
There he found a young calf, a “dogie,” who had lost its own mother. Rastus tied the dead calf’s hide over the dogie’s back and put the dogie into a holding pen along with the cow with the bursting udder. The calf bawled and tried to suckle the cow. The cow kicked the calf away—but then sniffed at it, recognizing the familiar smell of her own calf. After about an hour, the cow was suckling the calf. He had found a new mother. Sandra, watching, had learned another lesson about death, renewal, and moving on.
“DA” was a patient teacher. He always spoke to Sandra as an adult. He took his daughter everywhere around the ranch. He taught her how to brand a calf and how to fire a rifle (before she was ten). He taught her how to drive a truck as soon as she could see over the dashboard. He taught her how to paint a screen door. He was exacting—he always made her redo slipshod work—but, with Sandra at least, he was gentle.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Lazy B 3
Chapter 2 Stanford 39
Chapter 3 The Golden Couple 75
Chapter 4 Majority Leader 113
Chapter 5 Arizona Judge 159
Chapter 6 The President Calls 191
Chapter 7 Inside the Marble Palace 231
Chapter 8 Scrutiny 275
Chapter 9 Fwotsc 311
Chapter 10 Cancer 359
Chapter 11 A Woman's Role 399
Chapter 12 Civic Religion 445
Chapter 13 Bush v. Gore 483
Chapter 14 Affirmative Action 527
Chapter 15 End Game 565
Chapter 16 Labor of Love 607
Illustration List and Credits 715
Reading Group Guide
1. The Lazy B was all work and little play, and Sandra was sent away to school when she was six years old. So why did she love it so? Her father could be pretty cold. But she adored him. Why?
2. What do you think of college social life in the late 1940s?
3. Sandra knew that she wanted to work, at a time that other Stanford women expected to stay home. What drove her?
4. What were the most important lessons Sandra learned during her six years at Stanford?
5. How well did Sandra balance work life and family? Why didn’t she expect her husband to help more at home? Would you have liked her to be your mother?
6. How did Sandra deal with difficult or condescending males? Did it work?
7. Was Sandra ready to be a U.S. Supreme Court justice? In what ways was she ready and in what ways not? What impact did her being female have on the other justices?
8. She is the last justice to have held an elective office. What’s the significance? Did Justice O’Connor change and evolve on the Court? How and for better or for worse?
9. Was she a feminist? What did she do to advance women’s rights? How does she compare with Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
10. Did O’Connor do the right thing when she left the Court? How did Sandra deal with her husband’s dementia? Her own breast cancer? And at the end, her own dementia?
11. She liked to say, “It’s good to be first, but you don’t want to be the last.” What did she mean?
12. What did she teach her law clerks about the law and about life? What can we learn from her example about the importance of civility?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The book shares insight into O’Connor’s childhood, education, family, and career. It also addressed the challenges Sandra faced after graduating from law school. Sandra had to leave Lazy B when she was six to live with her maternal grandparents and go to school. The Lazy B roots will influence much of O’Connor’s life. Her children and family were always top priority to Sandra. The O’Connors had three sons and Sandra was able to successfully blend motherhood and a career. She was a strong-willed, intelligent, and humble woman.“ John O’Connor was not threatened by her “intellectual power” and very supportive of Sandra. John and Sandra had a good time together dancing, joking. “O’Connor loved amateur theatricals, both watching them and putting on her own skits with John.” In this book, I felt a clear understanding of John and Sandra’s relationship. The book touches on the impact to John when Sandra was appointed to the Supreme Court. He gave up his influential position in Phoenix and found a position in Washington. “The O’Connors’ closest friends saw the effort that John put into his role as husband of the Most Powerful Woman in America.” She was the “first” at many things including “…the first female majority leader of a state senate in Arizona and U.S. Supreme Court.” Sandra mentored her clerks and was involved in their personal lives. She would walk away from fights she deemed unnecessary, while never shying away from the important ones. She knew when to tease, when to flatter, and when to punch…” “O’Connor was the most powerful Supreme Court justice of her time.” For most of her 24+ years on the Court, she was the controlling vote on many of the great societal issues. Sandra had a close relationship with her law clerks. The clerks understood that they were undergoing more than legal training in her chambers.” The book frequently touched on an exercise class Sandra started for the interns (and anyone else who wanted) and herself to participate before the workday. Once confirmed, “The justices, she was surprised to discover, rarely spoke to one another; they preferred to communicate by memo.” “,,,justices rarely spoke to each other outside of conference. Their chambers were “nine separate one-man law firms,” as one justice put it. With few exceptions, they did not visit each other or pick up the phone. Sandra was instrumental in changing this. Justice O’Connor “was more in sync with the public mood than her fellow justices.” A great deal of the book addresses major cases before the Supreme Court and Sandra’s stand on the cases, including abortion, elections (Bush v. Gore), women’s rights. Often she was the “fifth vote.” Her childhood and background greatly influenced her decisions Book rolled right along but bogged down in the details of legal cases which may lose some readers. Ruth Bader Ginsburg joining the court is touched upon. Health issues were raised up: Sandra battled breast cancer. She fought this battle while on the Court and “returned to the Supreme Court … ten days after surgery.” During this time, the book shared her emotional turmoil but “hardly a pause in the O’Connors’ social calendar.” Sandra “…did not speak publicly about her cancer for six years.” John was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and in true Sandra form she took care of her husband much longer than most. She was very reluctant to have him in a facility. She stepped down from the Supreme Court because “John needs me.”
Having admired Justice O'Connor for her legal mind and pioneering spirit, I greatly appreciated received the ARC of her biography. The only reason this was not a 5 star book for me was part of the judicial proceedings in the middle of the book. This part needed to be written to make the book complete, but wasn't as enjoyable for me as the rest. I hope this is well received by the public.