Supreme Court is wary of drawing too many parallels between then and now.
O'Connor, 71, has just published a detailed memoir of life on her family's 250-square-mile ranch, called the Lazy B. The modest family house had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing until O'Connor was 7. Cowboys sometimes slept on the family porch.
"We're all a product of our youth, in a sense, of what we learn," O'Connor said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"Perhaps ranch life teaches one how to do things, how to have a certain amount of self confidence that you can do something useful, a certain amount of independence," O'Connor said.
Her book is a fond look at the people who built the ranch over three generations, and a stern testament to the values of self-reliance and hard work.
"I didn't write it to show readers anything about me," O'Connor said. "I did it to try to explain to readers what life was like on the Lazy B."
"Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest" is a glimpse of a world now lost to her. The ranch, in O'Connor's family for 113 years, was broken up and sold after her parents' deaths in the 1980s. The last portion was sold about 10 years ago.
"It was devastating as far as I was concerned," O'Connor said. "I thought it would always be there. It was a place where the family would always gather, where we were always welcome, where our children were always welcome, where our children's children - my grandchildren - were always welcome. It was very hard."
The book went on sale this week. O'Connor, promoting the book with media interviews, told NBC's "Dateline" that she and Chief Justice William Rehnquist had dated when they were both attending Stanford law school in the 1950s.
"We went to a few movies and one thing or another," she said, laughing, in a broadcast airing Friday.
The book is a collaboration with O'Connor's younger brother, Alan Day, who remained on the ranch after she left for college at 16, and later ran it.
The two traded memories and manuscripts, but O'Connor's is the dominant voice.
"The value system we learned was simple and unsophisticated and the product of necessity," she wrote. Everyone did chores, and nothing was wasted.
"A facility with words was not a requirement," O'Connor said in the interview, "nor was an evaluation of legal issues."
O'Connor could not get a job in a law firm when she graduated from Stanford, except perhaps as a typist.
"I was rather naive," she says now.
She nonetheless went on to success as a lawyer and politician in Arizona. Ronald Reagan named her to the Supreme Court in 1981, where she has gained influence as a swing voter who is often the deciding vote on an ideologically polarized court.
"Her opinions usually are not heavy on broad visions of constitutioal theory," said Martin Redish, a constitutional scholar at Northwestern University's law school. "They're usually more no-nonsense, down-to-earth, call-it-as-I-see-it kinds of things."
By Anne Gearan
© MMII The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed