Tom Jung/Daily Journal
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner was congratulated by U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, after being inducted into San Mateo County’s Women’s Hall of Fame Friday night.
When former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor interviewed at a private law firm — one of the few to even consider a female after her 1952 graduation — she was a bit confused by one question.
“Ms. Day, how well do you type?”
O’Connor told the audience inducting her into the San Mateo County Women’s Hall of Fame on Friday night she wasn’t sure. Her typing was “fair but not excellent.” But if it was good, the interviewer at the Los Angeles firm said, he could get her a job as a legal secretary.
O’Connor passed, instead securing a job with the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office which put her on the road to being the first woman named to the United States Supreme Court in 1981 and more than 60 years after that first step finding a permanent place of honor in the county’s Women’s Hall of Fame.
O’Connor was honored, along with two other inductees and a young woman of excellence, Friday night inside the historic county courthouse — the same chamber where she practiced without pay and using a shared desk with secretaries after then-district attorney Keith Sorenson accepted the woman who graduated top of her class at Stanford Law School.
The job was better than those held by classmates at private firms and gave her a passion for civil service, O’Connor told the crowd Friday night.
She left San Mateo County when her husband was drafted to serve in Germany during the Korean War but said she always keeps a dear spot for the county where she got her legal footing.
While O’Connor was undeniably a draw to the 30th annual induction, the other honorees were not slouches either.
Joining O’Connor were Dr. Faye McNair-Knox, Fatima Soares and Nina Luo.
McNair-Knox, a “rare person” with four degrees from Stanford University, according to introducer Supervisor Warren Slocum, is executive director of the nonprofit One East Palo Alto Neighborhood Improvement Initiative and also works to decrease crime, improve employment options and help those isolated by mental illness. She also, as Slocum said anybody who has been in a meeting with her knows, always asks others to “show me some love.”
McNair-Knox has a “reputation for speaking the sweet truth, tackling the impossible and making a difference,” Slocum said.
In her remarks, McNair-Knox addressed the need for women in particular to have role models.
Soares, who came to the United States from Portugal at age 15, meant for her stint as a social worker at Coastside Hope to be a one-year contract. That was 1977 and Soares is now the executive director. She also volunteers at other coastal nonprofits including the RotaCare Free Clinic.
Her work, she said, draws on personal experience.
“I know firsthand that everybody needs a hand up,” she said.
Even at her young age, Luo has a lengthy resume of service but told the audience that it was “only natural to do so.” The Millbrae teen attends San Mateo Middle College while simultaneously enrolled as a junior at Mills High School. She spends her free time writing grant requests for Sunset Youth Services to fund work experiences for youth and serves as a youth suicide prevention peer counselor for StarVista.
She wasn’t pushed by family or school requirements but felt a need to give back.
“Everyone deserves to feel hope and no one deserves to fall through the cracks,” she said, before proceeding to literally thank everyone she ever worked with, is related to or met in her life.
The honorees’ words were a precursor to Day O’Connor who was not only an inductee but also served as keynote speaker. O’Connor shared that the legal bug bit her the third year of her undergraduate Stanford education. She told her parents, ranchers in Arizona, and while they admitted the two career paths were pretty different “it wouldn’t hurt to have a lawyer in the family.”
At the time, only 3 percent of law students in the United States were women and only five, including O’Connor, were enrolled at Stanford. She excelled and was on law review but, she said, none of that mattered compared to her gender.
Her break came in San Mateo where she was willing to prove her worth without a paycheck or desk and a district attorney was open to employing a woman.
“So that’s how I got started,” she said.
Although she didn’t stay too long, O’Connor said she will never forget it.
“San Mateo County has always and will always hold a special place in my heart,” she said.
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