Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court, has been the focus of everyone from fellow Cornell alumni (she was first in the Class of ‘54; this reviewer was much further back in the Class of ‘61) to those who followed her recent debilitating illness.

Respected journalist and historian Evan Thomas answers the question “If Justice Ginsburg was the second woman on the Supreme Court, who was number one?” in the title of his new biography “First: Sandra Day O’Connor.”

Thomas notes the many similarities that the two justices share: each confronted gender discrimination, had astounding personal work ethics and supportive husbands in that era of discrimination.

A major difference: power. As a lawyer, Ginsburg won important cases; as a liberal justice during a conservative period, she determined outcomes in multiple cases before the nation’s highest court.

But O’Connor was the swing vote on a closely divided bench. She alone saved abortion rights, her vote saved affirmative action and delivered the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000.

Thomas obviously considers her the most significant woman in American history.

The O’Connor family gave Thomas instant accessibility to the justice’s papers and encouraged colleagues to speak. The result is a detailed biography about her professional and personal lives. An example: as O’Connor struggled to cope with her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease, she refused her doctor’s prescription for antidepressants.

That refusal to accept much help of any kind, including biochemical, was embedded during her childhood on 160,000 tough acres of the Lazy B ranch on the Arizona-New Mexico border. Almost everyone has a pet cat as a youngster: O’Connor had a pet bobcat.

Another toughening experience came when she lived with her maternal grandparents in El Paso and attended finishing school, ate on white tablecloths and studied Greek and Latin. Thomas wrote those efforts helped form her self-sufficiency and aversion to whining.

Her law clerks remembered her ardent orders formed during that time: “No excuses. Get the job done!”

When she was 16, O’Connor left for college and then law school at Stamford.

O’Connor attended law school with William Rehnquist, future chief justice. They dated but he failed the ultimate test when her father asked if the law student wanted a bull’s testicle grilled over a branding fire.

Rival John O’Connor and his marriage to Sandra Day is the heart of Thomas’ biography. She and O’Connor settled in Phoenix and she did volunteer work until landing a job as an assistant attorney general. Directly after law school, she refused the only job offers available as a legal secretary.

She rose quickly to earn a seat in the Arizona State Senate, became senate majority leader and then accepted a judgeship on the state court of appeals.

She and her husband hiked, golfed and skied, networked with the likes of Chief Justice Warren Burger, and raised three sons.

She also cooked every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” A friend bemoaned that feat “Oh, for God’s sake, Sandra. Do you always have to overachieve?” Thomas wrote.

During his 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan had promised to appoint the first women to the Supreme Court. Thanks at least partly to a good word from Warren Burger, Reagan nominated O’Connor.

In those more innocent days, Burger’s suggestion and O’Connor’s reputation as a loyal Republican meant no hard-nosed inquiries as there are today.

Author Thomas realized that O’Connor understood her practical decisions and provided the decisive vote in the shameful Bush v. Gore decision. Thomas wrote that O’Connor called the court’s decision “limited to the present circumstances, for the problems of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities.”

In other words, the case would benefit only one person, rather than establish precedent. That one person, of course, was the Republican candidate for president.

O’Connor never called herself a feminist but she was aware of her role as the first women on the court. She embraced that role and eventually the cause of women’s rights, Thomas wrote.

O’Connor knew what she wanted as a legacy. She wrote her sons instructions about what she sought in the public portion of her funeral: “I hope I have helped pave the pathway for other women who have chosen to follow a career.”

Evan Thomas’ book is an excellent biography of a remarkable woman, of course, but also a dirge for a worldview that has disappeared from too many of our lives and much of our discourse.

This reviewer always recommends Abebooks for discount best sellers.. “First” is available in new hardcover for $23.16 as this review is written.