Sandra Day O’Connor

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(HOST) Commentator Cheryl Hanna reflects on the tenure of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and what her resignation might mean for the women of Vermont.

(HANNA) I was a high school freshman when President Reagan appointed Sandra Day O’Connor to the United States Supreme Court. Although women were becoming lawyers in significant numbers, I couldn’t discount the symbolic importance of a woman sitting on the nation’s highest court, interpreting a Constitution that, at its founding, provided only men the right to vote.

For many women in my generation, Justice O’Connor provided the inspiration to go to law school – and the proof that two x chromo- somes couldn’t hold us back.

But the shattering of glass at the Supreme Court isn’t her most important legacy. It’s her decisions. In her first term, she provided the crucial fifth vote in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan. The case involved a man who wanted to attend an all-women’s nursing school. He sued, arguing that the all-female school was unconstitutional. Justice O’Connor agreed.

It might seem odd that her first significant opinion would favor a man. But in it she argued that Mississippi’s all-women policy really discriminated against women by reinforcing the stereotype that nursing was “women’s work”, with the result that nurses had long been underpaid.

The opinion opened the doors for women at traditionally all-male institutions, including the Virginia Military Institute, and sent a clear message that no profession should be the domain of one sex.

Would a male justice have ruled the same way? Maybe. But the spirit of the opinion bears the distinct mark of O’Connor. Despite graduating third in her class at Stanford Law School, the only job she was offered was as a legal secretary. She understood first- hand the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of gender discrimination that have no place in our Constitutional scheme.

She was also pivotal in preserving affirmative action in higher education and Title IX, which ensures gender equity in sports.

Furthermore, those of us who came of age during O’Connor’s ten- ure have her largely to thank for our reproductive freedom. Even though she was willing to allow the states more latitude in regu- lating abortion, O’Connor refused to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Even if President Bush appoints a woman to replace her, it’s unlikely she’ll have the same commitment to gender equality as did O’Connor. With an increasingly conservative court, many of the Federal protections women have come to rely upon are at risk. In particular, issues like reproductive choice and gender discrimina- tion in education and employment will likely now be debated at the state level.

It will be up to the Vermont Legislature and our Supreme Court to make sure that the rights of Vermonters, regardless of sex, remain a part of our legal heritage.

And while I’m saddened to see O’Connor resign, I’m hopeful that, here in Vermont, her vision of equality will survive the test of politics and the test of time.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

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