GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed as an associate justice to the U.S. Supreme Court by a unanimous vote in 1981, but her entry into the law profession was not as smooth.

She recalled applying to dozens of law firms after graduating from Stanford Law School. None would see her for an interview. One firm even offered her a position as a secretary.

“They said, ‘We don’t hire women,’” O’Connor told an audience at Stockton College Monday night. “They just wouldn’t even talk to me.”

But eventually the county attorney’s office in San Mateo, Calif., did offer her a job, launching a career that would take her to the highest court in the country.

Along the way, she was elected to the Arizona State Senate and later served as a superior court judge and on the Arizona Court of Appeals.

It was an unexpected phone call, however, that would make her a historic figure.

“Ron Reagan here. Hello, Sandra. Is that you,” the voice on the other end of the line asked.

O’Connor said the call was a surprise and the appointment an honor. After a 99-0 senate vote, O’Connor became the country’s first female Supreme Court justice.

That distinction brought thousands to Richard Stockton College on Monday as O’Connor launched the college’s Pappas Visiting Scholar Series.

During an hour-long conversation with attorney Thomas Wilner, O’Connor told stories of her youth growing up on a ranch in New Mexico, her early years as a law student, and her path to the Supreme Court.

O’Connor focused on the strides women have made, but acknowledged women still have barriers to break.

“It’s been very slow to get women in positions of authority in this country,” O’Connor said.

She said that today watching three women serve on the court is a source of pride.

“To look up at the bench and see three women sitting on it is very satisfying,” she said.

O’Connor, the mother of three children, said she understands the dilemma working women face in this country and that there’s “no easy answer” for them.

Wilner, the moderator and a Washington, D.C.-based attorney with the firm of Shearman & Sterling, asked if men should do more to help.

“Well, you probably should, but it’s not likely to happen,” she joked.

And despite the challenges, she urged women to work toward their goals.

“Just hang in there,” she said. “It’s worth it at the end of the day.”

She also spoke of her continuing efforts to promote civics education, something many schools no longer offer.

O’Connor founded the online project iCivics.org, a web-based project designed to encourage young people to learn about their government and to become involved in it.

It was founded, she said, because “we needed to teach young people what our system of government is.”

Audience members also hear anecdotes from her days on the Supreme Court. She recalled her first meeting with Justice Byron White.

It is tradition for each justice to shake each other justice’s hand before oral argument.

When White shook her hand the first time, “I thought I was going to die on the spot. He just crunched it.”

After that, O’Connor never took his whole hand again.

“I just took the thumb,” she said.

Her time on the court she recalled fondly. “We worked together, I thought, very well indeed.”

After her talk, college President Herman J. Saatkamp Jr. and college Provost Harvey Kesselman gave O’Connor an honorary degree from the college. “I have a hood,” she said as they presented her with the degree’s colors.

And as the night ended, the audience joined in singing “Happy Birthday” to O’Connor. She will be 84 on Wednesday.

Contact Trudi Gilfillian:

609-463-6716

Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.