When I was growing up in the 1980s, it was a pretty big deal when Sandra Day O’Connor took her place on the Supreme Court. She was an instant icon for women of my generation. Her husband, a once-powerful Arizona lawyer and the family breadwinner, for all intents and purposes became invisible. The O’Connors met at Stanford Law School, married in 1952, and had three sons. Justice O’Connor couldn’t even get a job, much like her colleague the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, despite both graduating at the top of their classes.
John O’Connor, for his part, left a lucrative partnership at a Phoenix law firm to come to Washington with his wife in 1981. He worked for other storied D.C. law firms but was limited in his ability to take on matters that could come before the justices.
What many people do not know is that Justice O’Connor left the court when she was 75 to become a full-time caretaker of her husband, who was diagnosed with Alzheimers in 2006. What emerged from O’Connor’s decision back then is no different than the conversations powerful women are having right now. An intimate picture emerged of one of the country’s most powerful women navigating work/life balance on a grand scale—the twin pressures of a husband progressively losing cognitive function while she carried out her unique responsibilities as one of nine justices on the Supreme Court. Ultimately, she chose family.