It may be difficult for women who weren’t there at the time to understand, but Sandra Day O’Connor’s swearing in as a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States 30 years ago was a very big deal. As the first woman to serve on the Court, during her 25-year tenure she was widely acknowledged as a careful and thoughtful jurist who ruled on many of the most important legal issues of her time.

Even before spending a quarter of a century on the Supreme Court, however, the former Junior League of Phoenix member and past president had an interesting life. Born and raised on a cattle ranch in Arizona (which she later wrote a book about with her brother). A graduate of Stanford Law School, serving on the Stanford Law Review, she was unable to find a job with a law firm in California. She became a county prosecutor in California instead. She entered Arizona politics, first as Assistant Attorney General and later as a member of the Arizona State Senate, later becoming the first female majority leader in a state legislature. (That makes her the last Supreme Court Justice to have started in politics.) Then, after serving on the Arizona Court of Appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court.

Appointed in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor of the United States, by President Barack Obama nearly 30 years later. Which sums up her life in public service.