Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Woman’s Work: Blazing the Trail

By Sarah Barrios

On March 26, 1930, the first female United States Supreme Court Justice was born. Today is her eighty-fourth birthday. Sandra Day O’Connor was born into a ranching family in her native Arizona. It is easy to imagine her refusing to ride side-saddle as a young girl or crossing gender-lines off the ranch as much as on. In fact, one oft-told tale details O’Connor’s rise to the highest court in our legal system. There is no easy road to the Supreme Court, and that was especially true when O’Connor walked it. O’Connor first studied economics, and then law, at Stanford University. Following her graduation in 1952, O’Connor found a number of barriers to her dream of practicing law – the most common being marked by a lack of opportunity for female Juris Doctors.

It is easy to imagine the road not taken. In the early fifties, someone like Justice O’Connor could easily have found a suitable husband, and settled down to live a relatively common life for that time. And while O’Connor managed to find a more than suitable husband (John O’Connor), she approached her search for employment in the legal field after law school with tenacity. First, she convinced the San Mateo County Attorney in California to give her a “foot in the door” by agreeing not to receive any compensation. Soon, she was the Deputy County Attorney of San Mateo.

In the 1960s, Sandra Day O’Connor worked as an Assistant Attorney General for Arizona, after stints in private and public practice. As another decade passed, she would begin her work with the Arizona Senate, twice winning re-election and serving as Majority Leader. By 1979, O’Connor was serving on the Arizona Court of Appeals, which she did for two years prior to Ronald Reagan’s nomination of O’Connor as the first female Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Today, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University continues to honor O’Connor’s innovation and ambition. Currently thirty-first among all U.S. law schools according to the U.S. News & World Report, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law has broken ground with innovative clinics serving homeowners, domestic violence victims, and others. About half of the students in law school today are women, and it is commonplace to find female attorneys and jurists throughout the states.

But that does not mean that the path towards success in the legal field is well-trodden, or that paths do not remain left to blaze. Women in the legal field, like so many in other professions, still struggle to find the appropriate balance between social expectations, family, and the commitment to the workplace. That issue is one near and dear to the heart of another female trailblazer who graduated from the School of Law at Loyola University in Chicago with just a few women counterparts: current American Bar Association President Laurel Bellows.

Sandra Day O’Connor’s 84th birthday happens to fall within National Women’s History Month, encouraging ladies in and out of the legal field to reflect on those who came before us, blazing trails and challenging the proverbial glass ceiling. The first Madam Chairperson of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, recently began her term of appointment in arguable one of the most important positions in the U.S. Reports yesterday included her statement that women’s participation in the workplace was crucial to economic growth. Marissa Mayer, the first female CEO of Yahoo, carried a torch for all women by accepting her position at a Fortune 500 company – while pregnant and just months from giving birth. Like O’Connor, Mayer worked her way towards the pinnacle of success in her field; she was also the first female engineer to be employed by Google.

Not all advancements of women over the last decades are as exciting as Danica Patrick’s first female win of the Daytona 500 Pole, or American physicist Lisa Randall’s work with particle physics and string theory. But whatever trail a woman selects in life, and no matter how winding or full of heartache, she can find inspiration in the experience of those like Sandra Day O’Connor. And that may be the best birthday gift of all for Justice O’Connor – to see what a woman can do with that inspiration, whether she is making the law or making lunch.

Sarah M. Barrios, M.Ed., Esq. is an associate practicing primarily in the area of family law. An alum of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Sarah received the W.P. Carey/Armstrong Prize for Achievement in Public Service before graduating in 2010 and joining the Firm. Sarah is an active member of the State Bar of Arizona, and the Family Law and Los Abogados sections of the Maricopa County Bar Association. She volunteers for the “LAWS” (Legal Advocates for Women in Shelters) program and the Arizona Disabled Veterans Foundation.