The movie “Notorious RBG,” a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, debuted in theaters in May, making some people wonder if there will be a film entitled “SDO” about Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the high court. If there is, the movie should note O’Connor’s Peninsula roots.
O’Connor got her first legal job in San Mateo County in 1952, breaking a “glass ceiling” in the days when the term most likely involved a skylight and not discrimination based on gender. Then simply Sandra Day, she graduated from Stanford University in 1952 in a class that included William Rehnquist who would go on to become chief justice of the Supreme Court. The class also included John O’Connor whom she married six months after graduation.
At the time, the only jobs in law offices open to women were apparently those of secretary. O’Connor said in a 1999 interview that she was told at one firm “we’ve never hired a woman, and frankly, I don’t think we ever will.”
Later, in her 2004 commencement speech at Stanford, O’Connor had more to say about the gender barrier that stood in her way in private practice. She said discrimination was “more easily hurdled in the public sector” where she found “encouragement from good mentors who were more genuine.”
Those mentors included San Mateo County District Attorney Louis Dematteis, who garnered headlines for his crime-busting efforts against entrenched illegal activities, including gambling. He also was known for fairness in hiring, having already hired a female attorney.
In a television interview in 2002, O’Connor, who served on the Supreme Court from 1981 to 2006, called Dematteis “a wonderful man” who “once had a woman on his staff, a lawyer, and I thought, well, if he could have one, he could have another.”
Dematteis’ son, Lou, said it wasn’t “an accident” that his dad gave her the job, noting that his father, an Italian-American, knew what being discriminated against was like. A Dematteis family treasure is a framed portrait of O’Connor that was presented to Lillian Dematteis. It is signed “For Lillian Dematteis, whose husband gave me my first job as a lawyer.”
Another of O’Connor’s mentors was Keith Sorenson, her immediate supervisor. Then deputy district attorney, Sorenson moved up to DA when Dematteis became a Superior Court judge. O’Connor resigned from her job in the County Courthouse in Redwood City in 1954 and moved to Germany with her husband, who was then in the Army.
O’Connor’s autobiography was published in 2002, but rather than having a snappy legal phrase or pun for a title, the book is called “Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest.” She grew up branding cattle on the family ranch in Arizona, an experience that developed her faith in hard work that eventually led to a judgeship and election to the Arizona Senate.
Her friends from the ranching days included Karma Dee Odelll, a member of a writing group at the Redwood City Veterans Center who died in 2008.
O’Connor’s name popped up during a discussion at one session, said Alice Pease, a member of the group.
“Oh, I know Sandra Day,” she quoted Odell as saying. “She’s just the nicest girl. Not stuck up at all! We went to school together and still write occasionally.”
A cherished item in the writing group’s scrapbook is a letter O’Connor wrote when she learned of Odell’s death.
“We were good friends as children in El Paso,” she wrote. “Although we did not often meet as adults, she was a cherished friend. She brightened many lives.”
The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday. Objects in The Mirror are closer than they appear.