By: Cynthia Richie Terrell
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s decision to retire due to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease has reminded me of her remarkable career and legacy. Justice O’Connor’s trailblazing life — including the first woman to be majority leader of a state senate and the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court — deserves another first: first American woman to have an airport named in her honor.
When stunned to learn that no American airport is named after a woman, I began calling for Washington Dulles International airport to be renamed for Eleanor Roosevelt. But to me, it is most important to honor women, not score partisan points. Justice O’Connor deserves lasting recognition, both because of her place in history and her efforts to elevate civic learning for all Americans.
Hers is a quintessential American success story. She lived on a rural Arizona ranch as a child, without water or electricity, nine miles from the nearest paved road, yet she earned admission to Stanford and Stanford Law School. Despite being among the law school’s top students, her gender made finding a legal job difficult; she ultimately found a position as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California, by agreeing to volunteer and share an office with her secretary.
With three young children, she later took five years away from the practice of law. Her subsequent rise was remarkable. After four years as assistant Attorney General of Arizona, in 1969 she was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Arizona Senate and then won election. In 1973, she became Senate Majority Leader — the first woman in that role anywhere in the nation. She won election to the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1974 and in 1979 was appointed to the Arizona State Court of Appeals. In 1981 came her historic appointment by Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Supreme Court, winning confirmation without a dissenting vote.
I disagree with some of Justice O’Connor’s rulings on the court, and I suspect other Americans do too. But no one questions the seriousness and intelligence she brought to her jurisprudence, and to the burden she carried so well of proving that a woman could be an effective justice. That was no small feat, from having to ask for a women’s restroom to be added to the court to correcting the New York Times in 1983 when it wrote that the court was all men.
Described by some as a “judicial minimalist,” Justice O’Connor often focused on the particular facts of the case at hand. In a court with underlying political divisions, this stance often put her in the role of being a “swing” deciding 5–4 cases. When she retired in 2005, her legacy as a jurist who addressed issues as they came was secure. While she may have agreed more often with the court’s more conservative justices, she found common ground with more liberal justices.
That attitude informed her priorities in the years since leaving the court, including as perhaps the nation’s most prominent advocate of civic learning. In 2009, she launched a website to provide interactive civics lessons to students and teachers, joined former congressman Lee Hamilton as co-chair for the Campaign for the Civic Mission of School and served on the Board of Trustees of the National Constitution Center
While partisans on both sides might grumble, I believe it’s time to send a message to the world that our most prominent international airport honors women leaders. Let’s celebrate Justice O’Connor and all the women who have served our nation by establishing the Sandra Day O’Connor International Airport.