Sandra Day O’Connor’s early life growing up on a ranch were perhaps unusual, though in some ways a fitting start to her pioneering future as the first woman Supreme Court justice. When she foraged her career there was a paucity of women in the law like there was little water in the desert. Indeed, as she describes in her autobiography, Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest, she “eeked out an agricultural living in a dry environment” and created a significant life in a world where women were practically invisible. She read profusely in her early years and engaged in many ranch activities. She learned to drive at age seven and could fire rifles and ride horses proficiently by the time she turned eight. Her dad was a gruff but loving perfectionist and her mother was a college educated beauty who cooked and cleaned in a dress and stockings every day.
Sandra’s early years were also a dichotomy of ranch toughness and private school privilege. Because of the remote location of her parent’s ranch, when Sandra became school age she lived with her maternal grandmother and first attended the public school in El Paso. She then attended the private girl’s academy, the Radford School and her grandmother drove her to the school each day. One public figure who visited the Radford School and who made a tremendous impression on young Sandra Day was Eleanor Roosevelt. She reflected: “Eleanor Roosevelt was a speaker with charisma. She came to my school and made an impression on me that has stayed with me forever.” She added: “I never told my parents that Eleanor Roosevelt visited my school. My father couldn’t stand Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the only person he detested more was his wife. That Mrs. Roosevelt visited my school was just a secret I kept to myself.”
Sandra Day O’Connor retired from the Supreme Court in 2005, and today she remains a sought after speaker at commencements, civic organizations, historical associations and law schools. Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with her about her approach to her communication and public speeches. These days, her thoughts are focused on the education of America’s youth. She urges young people to “take a speed reading course and learn to speak well in public.” She believes these skills are essential to success. Knowing a lot of information and being able to communicate it well are vital.
One of O’Connor’s post-retirement projects is targeted at the lack of civics education in our public school classrooms. She co-chairs the civics education project, called “Our Courts,” and she speaks about the Web Site she helped to launch called www.icivics.com. The icivics.com Web Site helps students learn civics with interactive video games. In a video about the site, she says, “As you well know, our knowledge of our system of government is not handed down through the gene pool. It has to be learned by every generation of citizens. Our nation’s schools were established to develop good citizens. To help you with that mission, I’ve teamed up with some experts in technology and education.” She adds: “You might be surprised that I’m promoting civics using online media. I’m not an expert. But even a retired cowgirl like me knows that we need to use these tools to educate if we are going to inspire and interest today’s young people.”
When asked if she enjoys public speaking, she said, “I don’t mind.” I don’t go looking for it, but if I could speak about something I care about, something that I want to express, then it is something I am looking forward to.” These days, Justice O’Connor is speaking about young people and the importance of knowing civics. It’s the topic she speaks about with great passion because she believes that the nation’s survival is dependent on its citizens’ knowledge of its government. She says, “If I can be part of the creation of a teaching tool to help teach the younger generation about the court system, I will feel I have made a helpful contribution.”