2023 saw the passing of Rosalynn Carter, Dianne Feinstein and Sandra Day O’Connor. These three women were trailblazers.
They charted a course, respectively, from their home states of Georgia, California, and Arizona to change the topography of the three branches of the federal government, and to have a significant impact on the United States of America writ large.
In the words of Jimmy Buffett, a trailblazer of a different type who also passed in 2023, they brought about Changes in Latitudes and Changes in Attitudes. Through their leadership, they each demonstrated that the government was not the exclusive domain of males and incentivized other women to follow in their footsteps.
Rosalynn Carter: A Partner
Before her death on November 19 at the age of 96, Rosalynn Carter was primarily known by the general public as the wife of former President Jimmy Carter. The media coverage of Rosalynn after she died made it apparent that she was not only Carter’s wife; she was his equal partner in every venture that he ever undertook.
That partnership started when Rosalynn and Jimmy married in 1946 and extended to all things, big and small, through their 77 years together. At Rosalynn’s memorial service, Kathryn Cade, her project director at the White House and close associate after that, said, “What a remarkable woman she was — wife, mother, business manager, political strategist, diplomat, advocate, author. Yet, what I remember most about her was her tireless dedication to taking care of others.”
For the first few years of their marriage, Rosalynn was primarily Jimmy’s traveling companion as he traveled around the country during his service after graduating from the Naval Academy. When Jimmy returned to Plains, Georgia, to run the family peanut business, their professional partnership was launched, as she assumed responsibility for the financial management aspects of the business.
Rosalynn progressed from there to being the key advisor and strategist for his campaigns to be elected to the Georgia State Senate, Governorship, and President of the United States in 1976.
As President Carter’s partner, Rossalyn transformed a spouse’s role in the White House. She sat in on cabinet meetings, provided input and feedback on the President’s policy positions and speeches, acted as his envoy to Latin America, and visited many countries around the world to champion human rights.
Rosalynn Carter got a full-time professional staff assigned to work with her in the East Wing to help shape policy and the direction of the government. As Jonathan Alter notes in a guest essay for The New York Times, she was “this country’s premier champion of mental health,” helping structure and get passed the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. She also championed the appointment of female judges, with “Carter naming five times as many women to the federal bench as all of his predecessors combined.”
After Jimmy Carter lost his bid to be re-elected president in 1980, Rosalynn went with Jimmy to make a substantial difference in new venues. She collaborated with him in establishing the Carter Center, which has helped 80 countries resolve conflicts, advance democracy and human rights, prevent disease, and improve mental health care. Rosalynn and Jimmy became highly visible Habitat for Humanity volunteers, increasing its national and international scope and reach. Rosalynn also founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, which has brought caregiving into the national spotlight.
At her memorial, Judy Woodruff, the former anchor of PBS Newshour, opined, “Without Rosalynn Carter, I don’t believe there would have been a President Carter.”
There was a Rosalynn Carter. Because of Rosalynn and her partnership with Jimmy, citizens throughout the United States and around the world live fairer and better lives.
Dianne Feinstein: A Senator
At the age of 45, Dianne Feinstein had run twice for mayor of San Francisco and lost. According to Robert McFadden of The New York Times, she seemed “washed up in politics” and on November 27, 1978 told city hall reporters that she was through with political life.
Two hours after she said this, the San Francisco city mayor and a member of the Board of Supervisors, of which Feinstein was then President, were shot and killed by a “disgruntled former supervisor.” The rest is history.
After the killings, Ms. Feinstein was named the acting mayor of San Francisco. She went on from there to be elected the city’s first female mayor, serving two four-year terms, the first female Senator from California, and the first female to preside over the inaugural ceremonies for an incoming president, in 2009 for Barack Obama.
Those firsts were outshone by Feinstein’s stellar performance during her 31-year tenure as a United States Senator. She served as the Chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Chair of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.
Feinstein was a centrist who could work with those on both sides of the aisle. She did so to get legislation passed that banned assault weapons for ten years, until 2004 when it expired.
Feinstein could also change her mind and position when it mattered. She had a reputation as a strong ally of those in the defense and security arenas. But after the investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which she headed, into the harsh handling of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, the Committee issued a report criticizing the CIA for its treatment of those individuals.
When that report was released, Senator Feinstein stated, “…history will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again.’”
Dianne Feinstein died on September 29 at the age of 90. She was the embodiment of a “trailblazer,” as evidenced by the fact that California Governor Gavin Newsom and U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, the Associated Press, and The Guardian all used that term in describing the critical role she played during her lifetime.
Sandra Day O’Connor: A Justice
Sandra Day O’Connor graduated near the top of her class from Stanford Law School in 1952, but because of her gender she was unable to get a position as an attorney with a private sector law firm. The only job she was offered was as a legal secretary.
That did not deter O’Connor, because as a “cowgirl” who grew up on the family cattle ranch in Arizona doing things such as rounding up cows, driving tractors, and other tasks, she knew she could do things as well as a man. That early life experience equipped her with the temperament for success.
In a guest essay for the New York Times, Oona A. Hathaway, a law clerk for Justice O’Connor, writes, “I always found it remarkable that I never heard Justice O’Connor talk with any bitterness of the barriers she faced pursuing her career. Instead, she worked hard and without drama to overcome them.”
That hard work included getting civically and politically engaged in Arizona. This engagement resulted in O’Connor getting elected as a State Senator twice, where she served as the majority leader. She went on from there to serve on the Maricopa County Superior Court and the Arizona State Court of Appeals. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated her to be the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court.
O’Connor was a Republican with relatively conservative values. She did not bring her political perspective to being a justice, however. She was balanced, taking evidence, facts, and social concerns into account in her decision-making, and was frequently the deciding fifth vote out of nine on important cases.
Two of those cases were on abortion rights and affirmative action. In 1992, she voted in the majority and co-wrote the opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld the constitutional right to an abortion established in 1973 in Roe v. Wade. In 2003, she wrote the majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld race-related admissions decisions at public universities.
The current conservatively politicized Supreme Court has reversed both of those rulings. It has not reversed the effect Justice O’Connor has had on the Court or the country.
Former President Barack Obama acknowledged this contribution when he awarded O’Connor the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 and praised her for “forging a new path and building a bridge behind her for all young women to follow.”
Sandra Day O’Connor died on December 1 at the age of 93, due to complications related to advanced dementia. Her legacy lives on, though, not only due to what she did as a justice, but also for the pivotal role she played in promoting civics education in the U.S. after she left the Supreme Court, and the manner in which she handled her dementia, and that of her husband, John O’Connor, who died in 2009.
There is much more that has been and will be written about the trails that Rosalynn Carter, Dianne Feinstein, and Sandra Day O’Connor blazed. Suffice it to say in summary here that they were the real deal.
Merriam Webster chose authentic as its Word of the Year for 2023. In explaining why this was its choice, Merriam-Webster wrote:
A high-volume lookup most years, authentic saw a substantial increase in 2023, driven by stories and conversations about AI, celebrity culture, identity, and social media.
Authentic has a number of meanings including “not false or imitation,” a synonym of real and actual; and also “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.” Although clearly a desirable quality, authentic is hard to define and subject to debate — two reasons it sends many people to the dictionary.
In 2023, in addition to going to the dictionary, those people could also have studied the lives of Rosalynn Carter, Dianne Feinstein, and Sandra Day O’Connor. These three women personify authenticity.
To borrow and modify some words from Robert Frost,
Rosalynn Carter, Diane Feinstein and Sandra Day O’Connor
They took roads less traveled by
That has made all the difference
Not only for them
But for generations to follow
And generations yet to come.
Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.