Sisters In Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World
Do you know what FWOTSC stands for? What about SWOTSC?
Those are the acronyms that Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dubbed themselves, respectively, as they joined the United States Supreme Court, O’Connor first in 1981 and then Ginsburg in 1993.
For readers not old enough to remember when President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman to the Court, it was a landmark in American legal history. For the first time ever, a woman would join the previously all-male bastion that was the Supreme Court and could well provide a point of view, based on her own life experiences, that was different from any other justice on the Court.
When President Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993, it wasn’t quite as astonishing as the O’Connor nomination had been, but the idea of two women on the Supreme Court at the same time was revolutionary.
Linda Hirshman’s book, Sisters in Law, traces the lives and careers of these first two women on the Court and how their very different life experiences shaped their judicial philosophies, sometimes at odds, but often together on certain crucial issues confronting the Court in the last two decades of the twentieth century.
Imagine this: although Justice O’Connor graduated at the top of her class at Stanford Law in 1952, a prestigious Los Angeles law firm interviewed her and suggested that she seek employment as a legal secretary. No kidding, but no surprise sixty years ago. Justice O’Connor found a government job in northern California, but eventually returned to her native Arizona, with her lawyer husband, and built her legal career there, but taking time out to raise her family. She was an assistant state attorney general, a legislator and later an Arizona state court judge when President Reagan appointed her.
No one was familiar with her when she was nominated to the Court and, as Hirshman recounts it, it took some time for some of the male justices to accept the idea of a female colleague. It didn’t take Justice O’Connor all that long to adjust to her new role. When appointed, it was less than a decade after Roe v. Wade and it was unclear how the Court would rule on abortion issues when they inevitably arose again. O’Connor, a Goldwater Republican, was an unknown quantity, but…she was a woman.
Justice Ginsburg, raised in Brooklyn, graduated from Columbia Law School in 1957 and spent time in academia before embarking on a litigation career. She, like Justice O’Connor, also was a wife and mother. Ginsburg ran the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU from 1972 to 1980 and litigated sex discrimination claims in much the same way that Thurgood Marshall did at the NAACP years before he went on the Court; it was one lawsuit at a time, one incremental change at a time, building on what had gone before. The litigation was not just on behalf of women, but men who suffered discrimination because they chose non-traditional roles, whether out of desire or need. In 1980, she became a federal judge on the influential D.C. Circuit.
The push for women’s equality starting out in the 1970s played out in various Court’s decisions once Justice O’Connor and then Justice Ginsburg joined the Court. One of the major cases that the book discusses in some detail is the 1996 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Virginia.
As the senior Justice in the majority, O’Connor had the right to pen the decision, which overturned the Virginia Military Institute’s refusal to permit women to enroll there. However, Justice O’Connor assigned the writing of that opinion to Justice Ginsburg. “This should be Ruth’s,” acknowledging the role that Justice Ginsburg had played over the previous two decades in creating the jurisprudence that struck blows for equality, both male and female.
The book discusses both the personal and professional lives of both women: how they handled the discrimination that they themselves faced as women lawyers and how their personal life experiences shaped their opinions once on the Court. They balanced their careers with marriage and families, not always easy tasks, and it was John O’Connor’s deteriorating health that prompted Justice O’Connor’s retirement from the Court in 2005.
There are also fascinating narratives about some of the ACLU cases that Justice Ginsburg handled as a lawyer and Justice O’Connor’s career in Arizona, and the book goes into detail about a number of the significant cases before the Court while both women were on the court. Both women are tough-minded with incredible work ethics, a philosophy of “no excuses,” and senses of how far to push the law in certain cases and when not to cross a line that the society was not ready to accept, at least not at the time. Both of them have senses of timing and history. Both of them have survived bouts with cancer, but neither let treatment get in the way of their work.
As a young lawyer, just five years into practice in 1981 when Justice O’Connor was nominated, confirmed and took her seat on the Court, it was for me, as it was for so many women lawyers, a thrilling time, watching history being made, a sense that all things were indeed possible, that a woman could hold her own on the highest court in the land, and that the day would come when Justice O’Connor would not be the sole female voice on the court. That day happened twelve years later. Now, more than twenty years later, the idea of more than one woman on the Supreme Court at the same, while definitely not ho-hum, is accepted as a norm.
Life experiences matter and as Hirshman’s book aptly tells it, both justices brought those life experiences with them and in doing so, shaped Supreme Court jurisprudence in ways that no one thought possible almost forty-five years ago. This book is an informative look back.