I picked up First: Sandra Day O’Connor by Evan Thomas back in March as a way to reinvigorate my stale reading life. I was struggling to read the books on my shelves at home, so I decided to look for books I knew I would enjoy: biographies and memoirs.
I checked out First from the library along with Ilhan Omar’s memoir This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman. I was interested in understanding politics, especially from the perspective of women who had lived experience in this realm. I quickly finished Omar’s book, while First took me much longer.
After about a month of reading, I’ve finished First. Here are my thoughts and takeaways.
Detailed, Detailed, Detailed
The aspect that I most appreciated about this biography was its commitment to delivering an extremely detailed and thoughtful portrait of O’Connor. Being that she was the first female Supreme Court justice, she has been written about more times than I could count.
Thomas’s biography has zero fluff. No detail is superfluous, and he and his wife Oscie conducted over 350 interviews around the country in order to create the manuscript.
He also read through O’Connor’s old opinions, briefs, memos, letters, and books. He contacted O’Connor’s connections from the places she called home (notably, Phoenix and Washington, D.C.) and they in turn rounded up other members of her social circles (which was no small task). No stone was left unturned, which is why this book has been labelled “unlike every other volume written about O’Connor.”
In this work, Thomas lets the interviews and research speak for themselves, as he merely binds the history together. It is an incredibly in-depth and dense book, but that is part of what makes it stand out from other works about O’Connor. He received access to her works and those of her husband John that most others did not.
It is truly a unique look into a life that had long been private and hidden.
Thomas’s Tone Is Human
While I firmly believe that there is no such thing as objective research as all humans are inherently biased, Thomas did a great job of skirting the line of telling the facts and sharing his opinions.
He looks at O’Connor’s life as objectively as possible, while letting small glimmers of his positive appraisal of her come through. Ultimately, he tells her story in a way that is both informative and humanizing; in my mind, she became less austere and unknowable in the context of this biography.
From Thomas’s extensive interviews with O’Connor’s friends, former law clerks and coworkers, family members, and collegiate pals, there are little insights throughout the book that point to what O’Connor was like in her younger years. He shares quotes remembered by friends and quirks about her lifestyle like being an avid tennis player and forcing her law clerks to take nature walks with her.
The book’s subhead reads “An Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice,” and that is exactly what is delivered.
Moderation Is Key
This takeaway is both in regards to Thomas’s construction of the book and in terms of O’Connor’s jurisprudence.
Thomas’s written view of O’Connor could be described as moderate. He never makes overarching, sweeping statements about the Justice based on just one interview or record. His opinions of her are shaped by each individual piece of evidence he uncovers, and this is the same manner in which he tells her life story.
It is fitting that he should present a moderate take on O’Connor, as that was the style of her jurisprudence both before and during her time in the Supreme Court.
Learning about her style in deciding cases was enlightening to me. Before reading Thomas’s account, I knew nothing about Sandra Day O’Connor other than her status as the first woman in the Supreme Court. She championed moderation on the court, even when it meant voting outside of her party affiliation (at times worrying sitting Republican presidents).
O’Connor was often known as the swing vote during her era on the court. She always looked at every case individually and ultimately questioned what the practical consequences of a decision would be. She always fought to cut through the legalese and get to the heart of the matter:
How would this decision impact the people involved in the case, and how would those consequences cause a ripple effect into future cases on similar issues?
She was interested in practicality and pragmatism, and there is a lesson for all of us in that.
In the era we find ourselves in presently, the easy road to take when we consider social and political issues is that of polarity or voting exclusively along party lines. However, O’Connor shows us that moderation and compromise can go a long way towards a more just future.
She was no activist, but she wasn’t a lame duck either. She was an intellectual force and used her vote to create important changes for women throughout her time in the court.
A Sense of Duty
Sandra O’Connor was a woman of her time; she wanted to do it all, and would not accept excuses from others who wanted something different.
She had a vibrant social life involving powerful figures in Phoenix and D.C., plus having three sons, going through breast cancer and treatment, and her husband eventually developing severe Alzheimer’s disease. Her belief system about duty informed her work ethic- she was everywhere at once.
However, because she was facing the pressure of the press at all times due to being the first woman in the Supreme Court, she felt that she could not take a break. Thomas tells of her many excursions into various natural spots in the U.S. to fish, ski, or golf. But, the plates she spun came first.
She was unrelenting in carrying her professional weight, plus the full weight of motherhood and wifely responsibilities (she cooked dinner every night and hosted parties for friends and power figures constantly).
I understand why she felt the need to bear such a massive weight on her shoulders while needing to appear graceful and composed. Part of it was the era in which she lived, and part of it was the pressures that come with being a woman climbing the governmental ladder.
While her sense of duty and pride in her work inspired me, I felt grieved that she shouldered such massive burdens for so long. She was too stubborn to ask for help and carrying it all herself eventually became too much.
We are thankfully in a different era now, where women have greater freedom to achieve a variety of goals and can take time to practice self-care. O’Connor didn’t have the benefit of understanding the importance of self-care, but she accomplished her duties with a no-nonsense, no-time-for-crying attitude.
At the End of the Day, Be a Bridge Builder
O’Connor was passionate about her belief in the rule of law and that a democracy can only function as long as those in power exercise restraint, respect, and caution.
She constantly gave speeches around the world on the rule of law and the importance of the people’s buy-in for it to work. She was adamant about being a bridge builder, not only creating relationships across the globe but consistently hiring a diverse cast of law clerks in the hopes of helping other marginalized people rise to positions of power.
She cared about bringing others along with her and creating space for more women to join the court after her.
This was also a function of her pragmatism; she knew that the court could only grow and function as a beacon of justice if she built a bridge for others to come after her. She never viewed herself as the be-all, end-all of women in the court (although she did worry considerably about when to retire, as she did not want a liberal judge taking her place as a result of a Democratic president’s nomination).
This book was incredibly dense and detailed, which made it a longer read for me. But, if you’re interested in women making their mark in government, it is an essential addition to your reading list.
Sandra Day O’Connor was not perfect, though she tried to act like she was. What I’m taking away from her story is that anyone can make a difference doing “work worth doing” as she liked to say. But, I can do it my way. I don’t have to wear lipstick or dye my hair like she used to (and probably still does, despite being in her eighties now).
Everyone’s glass ceiling is different, and we can shatter them differently.
The important thing is that we bring others along to help us do the work.
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