When she heard the name Sandra Day O'Connor for the first time in the fall of 1981, it meant almost nothing to Eleanor Smeal, then president of the National Organization for Women. All she knew was that O'Connor was the new Supreme Court nominee of a president she hotly opposed -- and that O'Connor was a woman.
That was enough. After a few quick calls to O'Connor acquaintances in Arizona, Smeal was on board. "We said, 'We believe she'll be there for women,' " Smeal recalled.
O'Connor's appointment galvanized women across the country in a way almost impossible to imagine nearly a quarter-century later. At a time when women were vastly underrepresented in professional schools and struggling for workplace equality, her ascension to the top ranks of federal power blasted down barriers and opened new horizons for younger generations.
More than just a symbol, she was cheered by women across an unusually wide political spectrum who believed the nation needed not just a female presence but a female perspective on its highest court. Years later, those supporters point to O'Connor's legal reasoning in several key rulings -- abortion rights, discrimination, affirmative action -- which, they are convinced, was informed by her personal experiences.
Yet for all the significance they place on her sex, women are split on the question of whether O'Connor should be succeeded by another woman. Although some of their leaders and members have expressed hope that the next appointee will be a woman, most women's organizations, liberal and conservative, are no longer making a person's sex an official priority, instead holding up O'Connor's reputation for open-mindedness as the characteristic they most want to see replicated.
"I think the mind is more important than the sex," said Jennifer Taylor, 48, a homemaker in Chevy Chase who described herself as liberal. "I just hope -- and I doubt -- that the person who replaces her is going to be as much of a centrist."
But lawyer Victoria Toensing, a Republican and a deputy assistant attorney general from 1984 to 1988, disagreed.
"One out of nine just doesn't do it," she said. "It is important for people to look at the Supreme Court and say there's someone on that court who represents who I am."
For many women who were beginning to make their way in law or politics in the 1970s and early '80s, the idea of a female Supreme Court justice was virtually inconceivable, almost until the moment it happened.
"It was still rare for a woman to be made a partner in a law firm," said Patricia A. McGuire, the president of Trinity College in Northeast. "We would hear horror stories -- if you want to be made partner, don't get married, don't have babies."
Jamie S. Gorelick, who would become deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, recalled a constitutional law professor in the early 1970s posing hypothetical arguments to his students as if they were members of the Supreme Court and addressing her as "Mr. Justice Gorelick."
"There wasn't even a way to address a hypothetical female Supreme Court justice," recalled Gorelick, now a partner with Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in the District.
Both women recalled the appointment of O'Connor as unexpected and electrifying. While some liberal women harbored doubts about a Republican appointee, NOW -- which had been pushing for a female justice for years -- quickly decided to support her.
Smeal's Arizona contacts told her "they felt she understood discrimination. She had been discriminated against as a woman," Smeal remembers.
O'Connor's personal history, in fact, became something of a touchstone, both for the activists seeking to predict how she would weigh in on key issues and for women seeking ways to balance career and family.
Although O'Connor graduated third in her Stanford law class, no law firm would hire her, except as a secretary. Ultimately, she started her own firm with her husband, and built a powerful career in law and in Arizona state government.
Judith Areen, then a professor with a 1-year-old child, was another liberal with doubts about O'Connor's credentials. When they met upon O'Connor's arrival in Washington, she found herself impressed.
"I was very admiring of the fact that she had raised three sons and yet had done well enough to elevate herself to the court," said Areen, later the long-serving dean of Georgetown University's law school. Michelle Bernard, a high school senior that fall with notions of becoming a doctor, found herself riveted by the gender debates surrounding the appointment. Would a female jurist overturn Roe v. Wade? What would she wear on the bench? She started reading everything she could about O'Connor -- and four years later headed for law school.
Once on the court, O'Connor almost immediately found herself the swing vote -- and often the deciding voice -- on issues of keen concern to women, such as abortion. A number cited one of her first opinions for the court, in favor of a male applicant seeking admission to the Mississippi University for Women nursing school, as evidence that she would not tolerate gender bias of any kind.
"She made it very clear in her very first decision [involving sex bias] that she believed you can't apply gender markers," said Judith L. Lichtman, former president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, which works for workplace equality for women. "Although she was very much a moderate conservative . . . she did not bring her own political views to her decisions."
To some, the opinions she wrote and the votes she cast were proof that having a woman on the bench made a difference. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's Democratic delegate to Congress, cited O'Connor's majority decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which she wrote that states may not put an "undue burden" on women seeking abortions before the fetus can survive on its own.
"Although this is a profoundly conservative justice who was not predictable on human rights and civil rights issues, she nevertheless made us understand why it was important to have a woman on the court," Norton said.
Bernard, now a vice president at the conservative Independent Women's Forum, cited O'Connor's decision in the case that allowed the University of Michigan to continue using race as one of many factors in admissions decisions.
"It takes a woman or a minority or someone who has been marginalized at some point in their lifetime to recognize the importance of our institutions of higher education not just being for the elite few," Bernard said. "You need to experience that in order to reason through that."
Yet Bernard and Norton, like many women on both sides of the spectrum, said they do not think it essential that O'Connor be succeeded by a woman.
"Forget gender," declared Gina Glantz, a longtime Democratic activist who managed former senator Bill Bradley's presidential campaign. "With the country as polarized as it is, to add someone to the court who would add another layer of acrimony to that playing field would be unhealthy for the country. . . . We need a balanced, thoughtful person, regardless of race or gender."
Marsha Greenberger, president of the National Women's Law Center, said that "diversity of experiences is critical, but not at the expense of having a justice who truly cares about equal protections and justice for women and upholding core rights."
Others disagreed. "If you can find a man who thinks like a woman and cares about women as much as women do, then fine, appoint a man," said Susan Ford Bales, a Republican who favors abortion rights and who succeeded her mother as chairman of the Betty Ford Center drug rehabilitation clinic.
But Bales, whose father, President Gerald R. Ford, appointed John Paul Stevens to the high court, added: "I just don't think a man can adequately represent women's fundamental right to equality in areas such as equal pay and health."
Smeal, now president of the Arlington-based advocacy group Feminist Majority, found herself at a NOW convention in Tennessee the day O'Connor announced her retirement. NOW's leadership put out a passionate demand that the next nominee "protect the civil liberties of all people" and pledged to fight anyone who "would turn back the clock on our civil, economic and reproductive rights" but stayed silent on the question of gender.
Not Smeal. She conducted a news conference with some other old-guard feminists, demanding O'Connor's successor be a woman. "We can't go back to the time of tokenism, one woman out of nine," she said. "Symbolism is very important. We're telling the world we have to eliminate the bias against women. There's no better way to do that than to practice what you preach."
Staff writer Lois Romano in Tulsa contributed to this report.