Even D.A. occasionally had to bend. O'Connor wrote that her father once accused Rastus, one of the ranch's best cowboys, of selecting the wrong calf to send to market. Furious at the slight, Rastus quit. After three weeks, D.A. finally went to nearby Duncan, Ariz., where he found Rastus, apologized, and pleaded with him to come back. Rastus returned, and, O'Connor wrote, "none of us questioned Rastus's judgment about the identification of a particular cow and calf ever again." And, if economic survival depended on it, D.A. took government aid -- when a drought collapsed the cattle market in 1934, he reluctantly agreed to destroy many of his 800 weakest animals in exchange for a federal payment of $12 a head.
Nor was religious doctrine a major element of the Day family's life. "It certainly was not as big a feature as it was in many other families," Alan Day recalled in an interview. Nominal Episcopalians, the Days would sometimes attend the closer Methodist church on the rare occasions when they had time to make the three-hour round trip. In her book, O'Connor described asking D.A. why they did not attend church, and whether he believed in God. D.A.'s answer: "It is an amazing, complex, but orderly universe. And we are only specks in it. There is surely something -- a God if you will -- who created all of this. And we don't have to go to church to appreciate it. It is all around us. This is our church."
O'Connor's parents were determined that neither their intellectual horizons nor those of their children should be fixed by the boundaries of their ranch. The family subscribed to the New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times; the Days traveled to Alaska and pre-Castro Cuba. Out-of-town visitors came frequently, and each time was an occasion for small-scale celebration. Yet D.A.'s and M.O.'s educational ambitions had a painful consequence for their elder daughter. From first grade through high school, she spent each school year except one with her grandmother in El Paso, so she could attend classes at a private girls' school. "I was always homesick when away from the ranch," O'Connor wrote in Lazy B.
In the fall of 1946, M.O. and D.A. drove her to Palo Alto, Calif., and dropped her off at Stanford University, the school her father had wanted to attend but had to forgo to take on management of the Lazy B. In the early postwar years, Stanford must have seemed a metropolis compared with the Lazy B, or even El Paso. Enrollment reached all-time highs, as World War II vets flocked to the campus. Trailer camps sprang up to house the extra students.Of the 826 first-year students who enrolled with O'Connor, one-third were women; Stanford imposed a strict quota on the number of female students in those days.
O'Connor, a tall 16-year-old with short, dark hair, an angular face and a gap-toothed smile, wrote that she felt "poorly prepared compared to other freshmen I met." She would walk the hallways of her dormitory, singing the sad chorus of "Beautiful, Beautiful Brown Eyes," a folk tune about a woman who regrets her marriage to a hard-drinking man.
It was at Stanford that O'Connor met the key intellectual and spiritual influence of her young life: an eclectic law professor named Harry J. Rathbun. In the 1960s, Rathbun would found Creative Initiative, a nonprofit group dedicated to "exporing life's meaning." But at that time at Stanford, Rathbun taught business law during the week and led discussion groups on psychology, religion and ethics at his home on Sunday evenings. O'Connor first attended one of Rathbun's home seminars with classmate Mary Beth Growdon, who was Rathbun's niece.
"I don't think I had a cohesive philosophy of life at that point," O'Connor told C-Span's Brian Lamb in 2002. But the professor's enthusiasm for the broad metaphysical questions that tend to preoccupy undergraduates intrigued the rancher's daughter. "She was mesmerized," Growdon recalls.
O'Connor signed up for Rathbun's undergraduate course, and she has often said that it was because of his influence that she went on to Stanford's law school and became a lawyer. The philosophy O'Connor absorbed from Rathbun offered not ideological answers to life's questions, but an ostensibly practical method of asking them. It was an unconventional, almost New Age, approach, derived from the writings of Henry Burton Sharman, a University of Chicago scientist and theologian who developed a philosophy of spiritual development based on the detailed study of Jesus's biography. Sharman believed in applying the techniques of scientific inquiry to the Gospels, selecting those aspects of a story most likely to have actually occurred and then modifying one's life based on their lessons. Once derived, these ethical norms could supersede legal obligations.
"I remember at the dinner table [my father] would talk about his love and respect for the law," Rathbun's son, Richard, recalls. "But law would follow social ethics. People personally should work out of a sense of personal ethics."
In conveying that strong but flexible sense of responsibility, Rathbun made O'Connor realize that she didn't necessarily have to think of herself as a "speck" in the cosmos.
"He was just terrific," O'Connor told me last year. "And [he] was the first person ever to speak in my presence of how an individual could make a difference, even in our huge world. How a single caring person can effectively help determine the course of events. I had not heard that before, really, and he put it forward in such a persuasive way that I think most of us came to believe it might be true, and to take seriously the notion that we could make a difference."
In the late 1940s, Rathbun was unusual in another respect: He felt that his empowering message should be directed to women as well as men. "If the world's crisis is to be met successfully," he once wrote, "the need is that woman shall be given, and shall take, her proper place. That place male domination has heretofore denied her . . . In achieving this equality, not only must woman claim her place, but the male must make sure this is accorded her. Together, they can make a new world."
IN 1980, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE RONALD REAGAN PROMISED that he would name a woman "to one of the first Supreme Court vacancies in my administration." It was, says Richard Wirthlin, Reagan's pollster, an attempt to chip away at the "gender gap" -- Reagan's weakness among female voters, which, Wirthlin recalls, "haunted us all through this period."
The gap remained, though Reagan kept his promise. When Justice Potter Stewart informed the White House in early 1981 that he was planning to retire, Reagan told Attorney General William French Smith that he wanted to see a list of possible replacements that included women. At the time, there were only a handful of women in the country with significant experience on the bench, and not many of them were Republicans. One was a 51-year-old appellate judge from Arizona who had once applied to Smith's firm in California and had been offered a job -- as a secretary.
Indeed, for O'Connor, the years after Stanford had been shaped by the fact that few men in the legal profession shared Harry Rathbun's views about gender. After graduating from law school in 1952 -- in a class whose top student was Rehnquist -- she settled in California with her new husband, John O'Connor, who was finishing up at Stanford law. She eventually landed a job as a lawyer in the San Mateo County attorney's office by offering to work for free until a paid position opened up.
When her husband was drafted, O'Connor moved with him to a military base in West Germany, where she worked as a civilian lawyer for the Army. Upon the couple's return to Phoenix in 1957, she set up a small firm with one partner at a strip mall, taking "walk-in business, whatever we could get . . . And it wasn't the kind of problem that usually finds its way to the United States Supreme Court," she recalled in a 2002 interview broadcast by Arizona public television.
O'Connor took five years off from the practice of law from 1960 to 1965 to concentrate on raising her three sons. She and her husband were active in local Republican politics and the Paradise Valley Country Club, as well as generally throwing themselves into a busy social schedule among friends in the upscale Phoenix suburbs. O'Connor was involved in so many charities and government advisory boards that it was not entirely clear that she was taking time off.
The '60s were not as turbulent in Arizona as in other parts of the country, but when Sen. Barry Goldwater swept to the 1964 Republican presidential nomination proclaiming that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," the state became a focal point of sorts for the conservative movement. One leading light of the Arizona right was Rehnquist, who wrote speeches for Goldwater, helping him develop constitutional arguments against federal civil rights legislation. Rehnquist testified before the Phoenix City Council against an ordinance that would have required hotels and restaurants to serve African Americans. Witnesses at Rehnquist's Supreme Court confirmation hearings would later accuse him of harassing minority voters at the polls in the years from 1958 to 1964 -- charges he denied.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in 2001 addressing a meeting of Minnesota Women Lawyers, is the justice most in demand as a public speaker.
(David Brewster - Minneapolis Star Tribune via AP)