She seems almost a parody of the accomplished woman: dutiful daughter, devoted wife, loving mother of three—and a hard-driving attorney, state legislator, bank director and appeals-court judge. And yet all of that is prelude to the moment this month when Sandra Day O’Connor, 51, begins her first working session as a member of the Supreme Court. The drama of such a historical occasion is hard to overstate as she assumes responsibility of a higher order than has ever been bestowed on an American woman. “You look at her résumé and you think, ‘My God, the woman must be some kind of machine,’ ” her husband, John O’Connor, reflected not long ago. “But the amazing thing is that she has always retained her priorities. The family has always come first.”
As the first female on the High Court, she has been hailed as a shining symbol of the newly powerful American woman. She did in fact defy barriers that were thrown up to her career, and she brought down more than her share. But true pioneers are rarely comfortable settlers, and O’Connor, who made her mark without benefit of an equal rights campaign, is not the New American Woman. “As far as I’m concerned,” she told Ronald Reagan as they chatted after her swearing-in last month, “the best place in the world to be is on a good cutting horse working cattle.” She is traditional: A past president of the Junior League and member of the community’s most exclusive private clubs, her hobbies are tennis, skiing and golf. But she is also uncommonly persistent. A product of that older America in which little boys could dream of growing up to be whatever they wanted and little girls could not, Sandra Day was one of the defiant few who dreamed their dreams anyway and turned them into realities.
What made her different? The search for an answer leads back to a harsh 260-square-mile tract of dust and cactus on the Arizona-New Mexico border, the ranch where she grew up. Standing at the house, one cannot see the end of the Day family’s Lazy B ranch, and its remoteness makes it seem even more vast than it actually is. “When I was working fence I thought the place was as big as Texas,” says Ralph “Bug” Quinn, 78, who has been a hand at the Lazy B since 1918. “It took nearly 30 days to ride it.” These days Sandra’s brother, Alan, runs the place. “We all have deep ties here,” he says of himself, Sandra, their younger sister, Ann, and their extended family of cowboys. “This dried-up old piece of desert is what we are.”
O’Connor’s paternal grandfather, Henry Clay Day, homesteaded the Lazy B a half century before she was born. Buffalo no longer roamed in those days, but Geronimo still did, discouraging lesser men than Henry Clay Day—if the weather, dust and isolation were not enough—from staying too long. Day had fled his native Vermont with thousands of others in search of greener pastures. Unlike most, he had made a small fortune in Wichita as a lumberman. With that capital, he went into partnership with a nephew who took $50,000 to Mexico and six months later rode onto their desert homestead plot with 5,000 head of cattle, branded with a B. That inspired the name of the ranch, and in 1880 Henry Clay Day moved there with his family.
Eighteen years later Henry and Alice Clay’s fifth and last child, Harry, was born. Harry loved the ranch, and his father built a one-room schoolhouse on the property for his own and other neighboring ranch children. But when the patriarch finally concluded that his children would never receive a proper education on the ranch, he left the place in the keeping of a new partner, and the family moved west to Pasadena, Calif. Harry got his high school diploma there and was planning to enroll at Stanford when his father died, and word came that the ranch was facing financial ruin. Harry returned to the homestead to straighten things out. He never left. Thanks to the generosity of a prosperous El Paso cattle trader named Willis Wilkey, Harry was able to get started again.
He also fell in love with Wilkey’s daughter, Ada Mae. “My father likes to say he met my mother when he went to buy some bulls from her father and she was part of the deal,” Sandra relates. “That is not true, of course.” Ada Mae was a different sort of girl from most of the ones Harry knew—citified, with a college education (University of Arizona, class of ’21) and a taste for literature and high fashion. Finally, tired of the 200-mile trips between the ranch and El Paso, Harry and Ada Mae eloped to Las Cruces, N.Mex. “We had to drive around half the night waiting for the courthouse to open,” Harry remembers with a laugh. The year was 1927.
Three years later their first child—and eldest by 10 years—was born in a hospital in El Paso. Harry worried about the new mother returning to the hardships of ranch life and advised her not to, but a month later Ada Mae turned up with baby Sandra anyway. “I missed Harry,” she remembers, “and the cowboys needed me.”
There were few comforts and little privacy for her in the four-room adobe house Harry’s father had built; the four ranch hands slept with them in the house, and Ada Mae hauled water until 1937, when Harry got a bunkhouse up on the property and put plumbing in their own house. Ada Mae coped with her hard life without complaint, but always saved time for reading: Even in those days the mail brought her the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker and Vogue. By the time Sandra was 4, her mother was teaching her by the mail-order Calvert method, and she read to Sandra—as she did to all her children—by the hour. Finally, though, Ada Mae decided the same thing Harry’s father had: The education that Sandra could get on the ranch was not good enough. As a first-grader Sandra was sent to live with Ada Mae’s mother, Mamie, in El Paso and enrolled in the exclusive Radford School for girls. “We missed her terribly and she missed us,” Ada Mae recalls. “But there was no other way for her to get a good education.”
From then on, Sandra lived for her summers at home, when she could ride with the cowboys, swim in the water-storage tank and be with her mother and father. Her father taught her to brand cattle, mend fences and ride roundups from the time she was 8; that year, too, he taught her how to drive the truck and tractor and how to trim the jackrabbit population with a .22. “She got so she was a pretty good shot,” he remembers. Bug Quinn remembers that she was also a creditable cowgirl. “She wasn’t the rough and rugged type,” he says, “but she worked well with us in the canyons—she held her own.”
She held her own too around the dining room table, where fiery conversations sometimes erupted over current events. Strictly political or religious questions were rarely at issue; neither of Sandra’s parents were regular churchgoers, and party affiliation was more than anything a matter of convenience. (A mediator in the conflict over grazing rights in the early 1930s, Harry eventually became a Republican in the overwhelmingly Democratic county simply to get people off his back.) But Sandra’s parents were emphatically concerned with the world outside the ranch. “One day when Sandra was 14,” Alan remembers, “they packed us into the car and we drove to every state capital west of the Mississippi. We climbed to the dome of every capitol building until finally we had to come home.”
Sandra never wanted to leave the ranch at summer’s end. “She’d always hide when it was time to go back,” Harry recalls. “One time she and a friend she’d brought home were swimming in the water tank and refused to come out. I got a lariat and roped them both out of the water. ‘Back to school with you girls,’ I said.”
She went reluctantly, but she took with her a sense of support that few young women of her time were fortunate enough to have. “Sandra would always tell us about her plans to be this or that when she finished school,” Harry recalls, “and we always went along. We just thought it was wonderful.”
Sandra eventually fulfilled her father’s dream of going to Stanford, and she has never since been far from the ranch for long. Her posh home in Paradise Valley is only 225 miles away. After law school at Stanford, she married fellow student John O’Connor on the ranch (“We liked John,” Harry cracks, “but I’ve seen better cowboys”), and through the many trials and exhilarating successes that followed, the Lazy B has remained at the center of her life. She is still one of its owners; Alan quips that she “questions every penny I spend.” And all three of the O’Connor sons worked summers on the ranch, learning to ride and rope from foreman Cole Webb. Told that if anything ever happened to his parents he could live on the ranch for the rest of his life, Jay O’Connor, then 8, saved up the $10 bus fare he would need to get there and kept it stashed away for months, just in case. The boys still consider the ranch their second home.
The respect Sandra tenders her parents is returned in full measure. “Sandra’s a darn good lawyer,” says Harry, “better than about 99 percent of them. That’s because she has good common sense. Sandra’s smarter than I am, but the common sense she gets from me.” She would gratefully agree. During her swearing-in ceremony, Alan watched her closely as she put on her robe, turned to the crowd, then walked to take her seat among the Justices. “She looked around, saw the family and locked her eyes right into ours,” he says quietly. “That’s when the tears started falling.”