Book Excerpt: 'Supreme Conflict'

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"Well, medium,"O'Connor told him. "I can get by, but it's not great." The partner told her, "If you can demonstrate that you can type well enough, I might be able to get you a job in this firm as a legal secretary. But, Ms. Day, we have never hired a woman as a lawyer here, and I don't see the time when we will."

O'Connor declined the typing test and, contrary to popular legend, didn't even get an offer for the secretarial job. Knowing where to wage her battles, she turned her sights to the district attorney in San Mateo Valley and eventually persuaded him to hire her as a lawyer, after she wrote him a long letter and told him she could set up a desk in his secretary's office.

That December, on her family's cattle ranch in Arizona, she married the charming John O'Connor, whom she'd met on the Stanford Law Review. She became the sole breadwinner while her husband finished law school. When the O'Connors moved to Phoenix several years later, she still couldn't find work at a law firm, so she became heavily involved in volunteer work while she reared three sons, and then hung out her own shingle. She and John also developed a close group of friends, including Rehnquist and his wife, Nan, who also had settled in Phoenix. The families played bridge together, picnicked in the desert, enjoyed frequent dinners, and even participated in play readings.

About the time the Rehnquists were moving to Washington in the late 1960s, after Bill Rehnquist took a high-ranking Justice Department job in the new administration of Richard Nixon, O'Connor made the transition from committed Republican Party supporter to political candidate. In time she would become majority leader of the state senate -- the first woman to serve in such a position in American history.

When President Nixon nominated Rehnquist to the Supreme Court in 1971, O'Connor was as surprised as everyone else. She'd written Nixon just three weeks earlier and urged him to put a woman on the Court. But O'Connor quickly turned all her efforts to supporting her close friend, lobbying Arizona leaders and writing letters in support. In a speech on the floor of the state senate, she joked that her only regret was that the president's choice "doesn't wear a skirt." But he was "one of the most brilliant legal minds in the country," she said, and she predicted that he might someday become chief justice. After Rehnquist's confirmation, O'Connor and her husband flew to Washington for his swearing-in ceremony. It was O'Connor's first time in the Supreme Court.1

Rehnquist had been on the Court nine years when newly elected President Ronald Reagan got his first Supreme Court nomination. Reagan had said during his 1980 campaign that he wanted to nominate a woman to the Court, and his attorney general contacted Sandra Day O'Connor, then a midlevel state court judge.

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