Sandra Day O'Connor Passed Away and I'm Reflecting on More Female Firsts in American History

Sandra Day O'Connor Passed Away and I'm Reflecting on More Female Firsts in American History

Dec 02, 2023

We lost a trailblazer of American history.

This morning, I woke up to the news of Sandra Day O'Connor passing. Whether or not you agree with her moderate conservatism that she was known for, President Ronald Reagan's landmark appointment of her to the Supreme Court is notable. And gives women like me, who are products of GenX, a sense of pride. Justice O'Connor was a true role model.

I'm not using the word trailblazer lightly. Being the first, in a time when it wasn't fashionable to appoint women to high positions, meant she truly stood out.

And did you know that her grandfather was a pioneer in traveling west? Yes, he was. According to this article I found on the Associated Press, he traveled from Vermont and founded their family ranch before Arizona was a state. Maybe a post for another day. As well as something more on the Supreme Court.

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Capitol reconstruction in Colonial Williamsburg

Capitol (and court) reconstruction, Colonial Williamsburg

More firsts, earlier on in American history.

There are a lot of firsts out there. In my morning musings over my second cup of coffee, I decided to search out some that might be a bit more obscure in our American history.

  • Elizabeth Key: quite possibly the first enslaved woman to sue for her freedom- and get it. Her mother was an enslaved woman and her father was planter Thomas Key, who intended for her to be free. After he died, his wishes were not met. Elizabeth ultimately married her attorney, William Grinstead. His support and perseverance to see Mr. Key's intent become reality helped Elizabeth gain her freedom in 1656. Read more here.

  • Ann Smith Franklin: sister-in-law to Benjamin Franklin, she was the first female printer here in what became the United States of America. Her husband James, who she set up shop with in 1720s Rhode Island, died in 1735. This left Ann, the Widow Franklin, to run it. Read more here.

  • Caty Greene: wife of the famous Revolutionary War General Nathanial Greene. Caty was instrumental in the invention of the cotton gin. Eli Whitney worked on the farm she ran and Caty had an active role in it. Read more here.

  • Hannah Lee Corbin: some say she was one of the first suffragists in American history. You may have heard her brother, Richard Henry Lee who carried pivotal correspondence to Congress in 1774. But a letter she wrote to him about taxation without representation (her right to vote as a taxpayer) is fascinating. What I've learned about her started with a performance here in Colonial Williamsburg and led me to dig deeper. She is a subject in this post.

  • Martha Dandridge Custis Washington: our first President's Lady. In 1789, Lady Washington set a new precedent in American history by laying the foundation for what the title of First Lady would become.

voices from the garden women's monument at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond

Richmond, Virginia's Voices from the Garden monument to women.

Politics aside, Sandra Day O'Connor's "first" is one to honor.

I clearly did not know Justice O'Connor, but I'm confident through miscellaneous anecdotes and comments over the years, she was excited to see Justice Ginsberg and the other women who've been appointed prior to her passing and am grateful for the trail she blazed.

Closing words from history.

The relationship between Lady Washington and Abigail Adams, her successor, is fascinating to me.

So for this post, an excerpt from Martha Washington's letter to Mrs. Adams, wife of John Adams, our 2nd United States President.

I was first introduced to this letter in Katherine Pittman's performance of My Dear Madam here in Colonial Williamsburg. For context, it was written as the Washingtons left the presidency and the Adams' were to start their journey.

Martha Washington to Abigail Adams, 20 February 1797

Martha Washington to Abigail Adams

Philadelphia. 20th February 1797

My Dear Madam

your kind and affectionate letter of the 9th instant has been duly received.— For the favourable sentiments you have been pleased to express for me, and for the testimony it contains of the aprobation of my conduct in the station I am about to retire from, I pray you to accept my grateful acknowledgments—

It is very flattering for me, my dear Madam, to be asked for rules, by which I have acquired the good opinion, which you say is entertained of me.— With in your self, you possess a guide more certain than any I can give, to direct you:— I mean the good sence and judgment for which you are distinguished;—but more from a willingness to comply with your request, than from any conviction—of the necessity, I will concisely add—

(the letter continues- click here to read in full)

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There is a huge practical disclaimer to the content on this blog, which is my way of sharing my excitement and basically journaling online.

1) I am not a historian nor an expert. I will let you know I’m relaying the information as I understand and interpret it. The employees of Colonial Williamsburg base their presentations, work, and responses on historical documents and mainly primary sources.

2) I will update for accuracy as history is constant learning. If you have a question about accuracy, please ask me! I will get the answer from the best source I can find.

3) Photo credit to me, Daphne Reznik, for all photos in this post! All photos are personal photos taken in public access locations or with specific permission.