Sandra Day O’Connor, the mom: How she raised 3 boys and broke the glass ceiling

Editor's note: This is the 11th of The Arizona Republic's 11-chapter profile of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. This biography originally published in 2019. It has been updated with her death on Dec. 1, 2023. Read the first chapter: An Arizona original with rancher values

Sandra Day O'Connor was born into an era when women were not supposed to have careers. Much less become U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Women were expected to keep impeccable households, prepare dinner each evening for their husbands and manage their children's after-school activities.

If a woman did decide to wade into the workforce,there was immense pressure not only to match their male counterparts' success but also exceed it, if they wanted to be taken seriously.

O'Connor knew that to succeed in both roles — a legal professional and a mother of three boys — she had to strike an impeccable balance.

Obituary: Sandra Day O'Connor, Supreme Court trailblazer and Arizona icon, dies at 93

So she did.

Her career accomplishments are well-documented and respected. Her attention to detail, bounding intellect and ranch-woman work ethic have solidified her place in American history.

But in a conversation with her three now-grown sons in December 2018, it's clear they believe her achievements as a mother have been just as extraordinary. O'Connor died in Phoenix on Dec. 1, 2023. She was 93 and the cause was complications related to advanced dementia and a respiratory illness.

A roadside debate and an adobe home

One morning in 1958, Sandra and her husband, John Jay O'Connor, pulled their black Volkswagen Beetle off to the side of the road in Florence Junction to settle an argument.

The O'Connor family at their home in an undated photo: John, Sandra, Brian, Scott and Jay.
The O'Connor family at their home in an undated photo: John, Sandra, Brian, Scott and Jay.

The O'Connors had spent the past three years overseas. John had joined the Judge Advocate General's Corps of the U.S. Army, stationed in Frankfurt. Sandra accompanied him, becoming a civilian attorney for the Army. After they were discharged, they spent a year living in a ski resort in Austria.

They returned to the states in 1958 to start their family and establish law careers, but they could not agree on where to do so. John wanted to move to Phoenix, where he'd landed a job at prominent law firm Fennemore Craig. Sandra preferred the Bay Area near Stanford, where they had gone to law school.

After a visit to the Lazy B Ranch in Duncan, the cattle ranch where Sandra was raised and her family still lived, they started west in the VW Beetle, still bickering about where they should put down roots.

On the side of the road in Florence Junction, John won the argument.

They rented an apartment near 19th Avenue and Camelback Road, where, that same year, they welcomed their first son, Scott.

Soon after, they bought a lot in not-yet-incorporated Paradise Valley, and Sandra insisted on designing an adobe home.

The house itself was modest in size but opened up to a stunning landscape that would someday be transformed into a desert playground for the neighborhood's youth.

Her next two sons were born in meticulously planned two-year intervals, Brian in 1960 and Jay in 1962.

The boys shared a small bedroom with a bunk bed for Scott and Jay, and a single bed for Brian.

Two-thirds work for half-pay

Sandra took a five-year leave from the legal profession after Brian's birth.

Her children laugh at the idea that it was her "time off." On top of caring for three small boys, she volunteered and led several civic and social organizations, including the Junior League of Arizona and the Maricopa County Young Republicans. She also provided pro bono legal services for indigent clients.

"She said the only way she'd be able to extricate herself from all of those other commitments was to actually go back to full-time work," Jay said.

So that's what she did — sort of.

More: Our mom, Sandra Day O'Connor, knew something about politics that America forgot

In 1965, she landed a job as the assistant attorney general for Arizona. But she wanted to be home when the boys arrived home from school.

She brokered a deal to work two-thirds time, for half pay.

"It wouldn't be legal today, but it was her idea," Scott said.

Staying active and involved

The O'Connor boys walked to and from school each day, often with a musical instrument or gym bag in tow.

Sandra encouraged them, and at times forced them, to remain active and involved. There was no lounging when the boys returned from school. Spare time was to be spent doing something useful.

Sandra enrolled them in activities of all types: swimming lessons, ice-skating practice, golfing, dance lessons — the list went on and on.

"It was well-rounded, from cotillion to mini-bikes and motorcycles and everything in between," Brian said.

Sandra organized an activity schedule with the other mothers in the area and the neighborhood kids would take over entire ice rinks, tennis complexes and "goofy golfing" venues each afternoon.

On the weekends, John and Sandra would join in on the activities, with the whole family on the tennis court or at the driving range. She also enjoyed a desert picnic, packing lunches for the five of them to munch during treks through the Arizona wilderness.

"The only time we got to rest was when we went away to college. I mean, it was rough," Jay said with a laugh.

'The activity center' for friends

The O'Connors adobe home was at the end of a cul-de-sac, opening up to a massive backyard with a sport court and trampoline.

It became the "activity center" for the children of Denton Lane and beyond, Scott said.

After their after-school activities and homework, the boys and their friends would engage in capture-the-flag battles, fort making (they resembled small cities in their size, Brian said) and late-night trampoline competitions.

"It used to crack me up that every kid in the neighborhood broke at least one bone on our trampoline but none of us ever did," Scott said, noting that none of their friends' parents ever sued the O'Connors over the broken limbs.

On Halloween, the O'Connors transformed their home into a haunted house, first for just the neighbors and eventually for anyone who wanted to make the trek.

"We'd have long lines of people waiting to get in for a tour," Scott said.

Sandra always wore a witch costume with an all-black gown — "a lot like her future robe would look like," Jay said — and John played the role of a hunchback. The boys played mad scientists, forcing guests to reach into bowls of eyeballs (peeled grapes) and brains (noodles).

At the end of the tour, each guest was served "poison" cider from a punch bowl filled with dry ice.

"Bottom line, our parents liked to have fun, and in a lot of different ways," Brian said.

Denton Lane Dust Devils

The neighborhood kids started their own cycling group — "bike club," which was soon renamed "Denton Lane Dust Devils" once the Honda Mini Trail 50 debuted and "everybody in the neighborhood had to have one," Scott said.

Paradise Valley had just been incorporated and had one town marshal who rode around on a motorcycle looking for trouble.

He found it one day on Denton Lane, when he came across about a dozen preteens (and some even younger) illegally drag racing down the residential road.

"He ticketed all of us," Scott said.

All of them were scheduled to appear at juvenile court for their misdeed on the same date. Sandra drove her sons to court and sat in the audience as they were called up one by one.

Jay, the youngest of the group at age 7, approached the judge, but he was too small to see over the bench.

"Sonny, why don't you come up around here and sit on my lap," the judge told Jay.

Jay cringed as he made his way to the judge and his older friends giggled.

"It was the most embarrassing day of my youth," Jay said.

Sandra watched quietly, perhaps a little amused that her sons were getting an early and intimate look at the justice system. She knew the judge, though that may have played no role in the ultimate decision to let the boys go after a promise they'd stop riding the mini bikes in the street.

"I think she enjoyed the fact that we learned a little bit of a lesson and needed to mind our Ps and Qs," Scott said.

Lazy B Ranch vacations

Sandra and John got a 30-day vacation from their children each summer. The boys went to the Lazy B Ranch to be "pretend cowboys" with their uncle Alan Day, Sandra's brother.

They'd spend the summer herding cattle, bucking hay and mending fences.

They were "barely adequate at best," Scott said with a laugh.

Scott said they didn't realize then how lucky they were to wake up in the morning, saddle up a horse and have free rein to explore 300 square miles of Arizona ranch land.

"We thought that was kind of what you did in Arizona," Scott said.

Scott, Brian and Jay said Sandra was proud to send her sons to the Lazy B each summer to learn about their family's ranching roots and appreciate the value of hard work. 

"The ranch was so foundational to who my mom was, and it meant a great deal to her to be able to share it with us," Jay said.

Balancing mom and lawmaker

After about five years in the Attorney General's Office, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors appointed Sandra to the Arizona Senate in 1969. The next year, she ran for and won the seat.

By 1973, she was appointed Senate Majority Leader — the first woman to hold such a leadership position in a state legislature anywhere in the country.

Scott said Sandra's appointment received "some pushback from some of the crotchety old guys who didn't appreciate a woman in that role."

Shortly after her appointment, one of the O'Connor boys (they can't remember which) needed to bring lemonade and cookies to school, which Sandra provided to them that morning before heading downtown for work.

But her son dropped them, leaving him without treats for his class.

"To remind them (the men) who was in charge, she stopped the session, went home, made the cookies and lemonade to re-equip us and then went back to the Capitol and they resumed the session," Scott said.

The boys said they usually took precedence over lawmaking, but they did recall a few vacations that were delayed slightly as they waited for their mother to wrap up at the Legislature.

Scott described one scene reminiscent of the Griswold family in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."

John and the boys sat outside the Capitol complex, ski equipment piled on top of the family station wagon, waiting to embark on the annual family ski trip.

At some "ridiculous early-morning hour," Scott said, the Legislature finally adjourned and Sandra went immediately to the car and the family took off for the Colorado mountains.

Lawmaker and mother: It required a fine balance that her sons said Sandra struck masterfully.

On the weekends, John and Sandra would fill legal pads with ideas for legislation, swapping and editing each others' work.

But when evening came, Sandra would make sure her family had a home-cooked meal to enjoy. She was an incredible cook who challenged herself to broaden her culinary horizons beyond the southwestern cuisine she was raised on, Scott said.

She got a Julia Child cookbook one year and prepared a different recipe each day for a year. She also enjoyed snipping recipes out of magazines, Scott said.

Scott, Brian and Jay affectionately reminisced on their favorites of her creations: yogurt pancakes, breakfast pop-overs, souffles, salmon mousse and fondues for birthdays.

"She still played all the traditional roles of what a mom is and ran the household and organized our activities," Jay said. "She just was incredibly busy juggling those two things at the same time and was an early role model for how to deal with those challenges."

Rubbing elbows with the powerful

At least twice a legislative session, Sandra would invite the legislators and their spouses to the adobe home on Denton Lane for a potluck.

She invited all of them — not just the Republicans.

"Legend has it that Mom was much more effective as a legislator when she'd been able to break the ice," Scott said.

John learned everyone's favorite cocktails and made sure they were waiting for their arrival. Sandra would prepare her famous dishes to accompany those brought by her colleagues.

The O'Connor boys weren't isolated to their bedroom during these events. They were right there alongside their parents, meeting their colleagues — and eating their contributions to the potluck.

Scott recalled a particularly scrumptious blue corn mutton stew from one of the senators from the Navajo Nation.

"I really enjoyed it when he showed up with a bowl of that," Scott said.

Teaching the boys to be worldly

Sandra and John also were members of the World Affairs Council, entertaining foreign guests who were traveling with the U.S. State Department.

The boys recalled meeting guests from nearly every continent. They were particularly struck by the Crown Prince of Swaziland, who walked into their home in traditional garb, which often includes colorful cloth skirts and ornate necklaces.

"We were just dazzled with the costumes and the dignity of these folks. It was just marvelous," Scott said.

Some of the visitors would stay with the O'Connors. Others would open their homes to them when the family traveled internationally.

Sandra formed a long relationship with the personal chef of the Japanese Imperial Family. She joined Sandra's tennis club, called the "mobile party unit," and they'd participate in tennis matches around the country.

The boys would accompany their parents on trips to foreign countries, meeting dignitaries and learning about other cultures.

"You know, it took years for us to figure out that wasn't normal," Scott said.

Sending the kids off to college

When the boys approached their high school graduations, there was some pressure from Sandra and John to take up the legal profession.

Jay got a particularly hard sell on joining the family business, as both Scott and Brian already had abandoned the idea.

He ended up using one of his parents' Stanford classmates to make a formal argument against becoming a lawyer.

He read to them a letter published by Derek Bok, who had become the president of Harvard University: "Far too many of these (exceptionally gifted) individuals are becoming lawyers at a time when the country cries out for more talented business executives, more enlightened public servants, more inventive engineers, more able high school principals and teachers."

Jay pursued business. He's now a software industry executive. He said his parents weren't disappointed.

Scott and Brian work in commercial real estate.

As long as their sons found something they liked and were good at, John and Sandra were content, the O'Connor boys said.

Scott said he began to realize his mother was "a little different" than his friends' mothers when Sandra, who had since been appointed to the Arizona State Court of Appeals and served as a Stanford trustee, was sitting onstage at his Stanford graduation as he received his diploma.

She'd go on to give the commencement speech at both of her other sons' graduations, but first she had to commence an opportunity of her own.

Mom goes to Washington

Sandra Day O'Connor, nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court, gets a kiss from one of her three sons, Scott, while another, Brian, looks on. The third, Jay and their father, John Jay O'Connor III, also attended the news conference in Phoenix, which followed President Reagan's announcement in Washington, D.C., in 1981.
Sandra Day O'Connor, nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court, gets a kiss from one of her three sons, Scott, while another, Brian, looks on. The third, Jay and their father, John Jay O'Connor III, also attended the news conference in Phoenix, which followed President Reagan's announcement in Washington, D.C., in 1981.

Sandra called her boys a few days before July 7, 1981, and told them they needed to be in Arizona for an announcement.

The O'Connor boys knew their mom was being considered for an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Department attorneys had come to Arizona to interview Sandra and she'd recently flown to Washington, D.C., for additional scrutiny.

But Sandra was the first to admit that it was a long shot.

"She just never thought it would be real, until the call came," Jay said.

On July 7, Scott, Brian, Jay and John stood beside their mother and wife as she held a brief news conference in Phoenix.

On Sep. 21, the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed Sandra's nomination and she became the first female Supreme Court justice.

The O'Connors sold their adobe home, left their beloved desert and moved to Washington.

"Typically, you graduate from college and move away from home and start your new life as a young adult," Scott said. "In my case, I graduated from college and moved home and my parents moved away."

Life in Washington

Jay was younger than his brothers and still in college when his parents moved across the country, which gave him more flexibility to visit them.

He spent one summer interning in former Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini's office and ultimately decided to live in Washington for a few years after college graduation.

"That was just a really amazing experience for me to be able to ... experience Washington with them and through them," Jay said.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor poses for photos on the steps of the Supreme Court before being sworn in with her family on Sept. 26, 1981. From left are: Justice O'Connor's father, Harry Day; her husband, John J. O'Connor; her mother, Ada Mae Day; O'Connor; Chief Justice Warren Burger; and her sons, Brian, Jay and Scott.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor poses for photos on the steps of the Supreme Court before being sworn in with her family on Sept. 26, 1981. From left are: Justice O'Connor's father, Harry Day; her husband, John J. O'Connor; her mother, Ada Mae Day; O'Connor; Chief Justice Warren Burger; and her sons, Brian, Jay and Scott.

John was frequently on the road with his law practice, spending about a third of every month away from Washington. So Jay served as his mother's date to many of the swanky social events she was invited to as the highest-ranking woman in Washington.

"I mean, I'm telling you, I only went to a fraction of things that she did and I was exhausted. My parents were very popular in Washington, both just very fun social people, and they got invited to absolutely everything," Jay said.

When Scott and Brian could make it out for a visit, Sandra and John would make sure they could bring them to an event at the White House or Kennedy Center.

"They would make a point of introducing us to all the VIPs," Scott said. "It was pretty amazing."

Eventually, they would do the same for their seven grandchildren. Each one got a solo trip to Washington to bond and explore.

"Our kids really loved those trips," Scott said.

John's death

John and Sandra were equally matched in almost every way — from their intellect to their spirit, their sons said.

When not drafting legislation, hosting foreign dignitaries or teaching classes at Valley Leadership about how to "make it work when both of you are working and have kids at home," they relished opportunities for adventure.

Sandra Day O'Connor and her husband, John Jay O'Connor III, when Sandra Day O'Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1981.
Sandra Day O'Connor and her husband, John Jay O'Connor III, when Sandra Day O'Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1981.

Their children recall their fly-fishing expeditions, slalom skiing outings, backpacking trips and photos of Sandra posing much too close to grizzly bears.

"They were pretty adventurous as individuals and as a couple," Brian said.

They'd fit these experiences into their busy professional lives as best they could, but the real adventure was supposed to begin after Sandra retired from the Supreme Court.

Sandra did retire in 2005 to spend time with her husband. However, John had developed Alzheimer's disease, derailing their plans for travel and adventure.

"It was brutal because they had a unique and wonderful, happy marriage and to not have the two of them functioning on the same level was heartbreaking," Scott said.

John's condition progressed rapidly. At the end of his life, he could no longer remember Sandra and had developed a relationship with a woman at his assisted living facility who also had Alzheimer's.

"It's just really tough to see Mom have to sort of go it alone when Dad was kind of in the latter stages of the disease. It just ended just a marvelous partnership," Scott said.

John died in 2009.

O'Connor's legacy

A decade after her husband's death, Sandra faced the same diagnosis.

In a letter released by the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2018, Sandra said she had been diagnosed with dementia, probably Alzheimer's disease, and was withdrawing from public life.

Sandra is considered one of the most prominent role models for women in the legal profession, and for working mothers more generally. Her legacy will include her Supreme Court contributions and her success in navigating a male-dominated profession as a woman and a mother.

But her sons say she's most proud of the iCivics program she founded after her retirement from the bench.

iCivics is an online tool that provides games and other resources to teach students civic education. About six million U.S. school children use the program.

"She was horrified at the level of civics education and this is the solution she came up with," Jay said. "That's how important she feels that it is to understand how the government works and be a part of it."

She believed her commitment to civics education will be her most important and longest-lasting legacy, he said.

But, Sandra will also have a living legacy — three of them — in Jay, Brian and Scott.

All three have families and children of their own. They've all forged successful careers (none in the legal profession) and have dabbled in politics and community programs.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's sons Brian O’Connor (from left), Scott O’Connor and Jay O’Connor visit the studio.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's sons Brian O’Connor (from left), Scott O’Connor and Jay O’Connor visit the studio.

It's impossible not to recognize Sandra's influence in each of them.

Jay is a board member of iCivics and lights up when he talks about the civic education tool. He's eager to share his mother's passion for educating the next generation about democracy.

Jay is the only of the brothers to have moved out of Arizona. He lives in the Bay Area.

Brian, who lives in Cave Creek, is "the adventurous one," Scott said. He's a skydiver who's completed a thousand jumps from Yosemite to Angel Falls in Venezuela. He also hiked the world's Seven Summits, including Mount Everest.

Scott has held local political office and hosted multiple foreign exchange students, a passion he learned from his parents.

He also inherited his mother's deep Arizona roots, living in the state his whole life (besides his Stanford college days) and taking his son on hunting trips across the state.

"I loved growing up on that great little cul-de-sac in Paradise Valley on Denton Lane," Scott said.

So much so that he and his wife built a house directly across the street from where Sandra and John raised him.

Their childhood home has since been moved to Tempe.

Faced with destruction in 2006, community leaders raised funds to relocate the house to the Arizona Heritage Center campus at Papago Park.

Jessica Boehm is a former reporter for The Arizona Republic.

PREVIOUS CHAPTER: In retirement, a focus on civics and conversation

NEXT CHAPTER: Sandra Day O'Connor, Supreme Court trailblazer and Arizona icon, dies at 93

Sandra Day O'Connor: American legend
Introduction: Arizona ranch girl, American legend
Chapter 1: O'Connor embodies Grand Canyon State
Chapter 2: Ranch life taught some of the most important lessons
Chapter 3: Breaking barriers as a young lawyer
Chapter 4: Rise from GOP activist to lawmaker
Chapter 5: A tough and demanding judge — but fair
Chapter 6: A well-connected candidate draws Washington's attention
Chapter 7: Confirmation hearing foreshadowed today's politics
Chapter 8: As the Supreme Court shifted right, she shifted to the middle
Chapter 9: 3 key Supreme Court opinions to remember
Chapter 10: In retirement, a focus on civics and conversation
Chapter 11: Raising 3 boys and breaking the glass ceiling
Obituary: Arizona icon Sandra Day O'Connor dies at 93
Lying in state: O'Connor makes final journey to Supreme Court
Washington, D.C. funeral: Biden remembers O'Connor's legacy
Phoenix funeral: O'Connor receives her final goodbye in Phoenix

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Sandra Day O'Connor, the mom: How she raised 3 boys in Arizona