Review First by Evan Thomas: Sandra Day O’Connor
The bestselling author delivers a new biography of Sandra Day O’Connor (b. 1930), the first woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
Thomas (Being Nixon: A Man Divided, 2015, etc.), the former longtime correspondent and editor at Time and Newsweek, shows a woman who “saw herself as a bridge between an era where women were protected and submissive to an era of true equality of the sexes.” However, writes the author, “she did not regard herself as a revolutionary. Her success was owed in no small part to her ability to marry ambition to restraint.” Though a bit slow at first, the narrative establishes an essential background to understanding O’Connor as a woman who effectively navigated the shifting political landscape facing many women of her generation. Through Thomas’ lens, readers discover O’Connor as a driven, confident woman who seldom pushed others to acknowledge the impact of gender on expectations or success. She was capable of ignoring sexism of her peers but was committed to public service, civility, and principles of equality. Mindful not to draw too many conclusions about O’Connor’s beliefs, which she kept guarded, Thomas shines a clear light on her savvy, incremental approach to social change. From her professional charm and humor to her stylish grace, the author presents a significant view of O’Connor that contextualizes her political sensibilities. Peppered with tidbits about her personal life, the overall well-rendered portrait bears out the contradictory truths of her liminal position between traditional and evolving roles for women. At times, Thomas’ conclusions border on restrained, but that befits his subject. The author is at his best addressing the cases that came before SCOTUS during O’Connor’s era. Thomas ably shows O’Connor’s pivotal role in reaching resolutions regarding such issues as abortion, affirmative action, and voting rights. The author also sheds light on O’Connor’s nuanced legal prowess and her sensitivity to the tumultuous rise of partisanship.
An important biography of a trailblazing woman, the book illuminates its subject’s strength at pinpointing a path forward in complex times.