A Brief History
On March 12, 1993, Janet Wood Reno, was sworn in as the first female Attorney General of the United States, and served as such through the entire Bill Clinton presidency, leaving office in January of 2001. (Note: March is Women’s History Month)
Born in Florida in 1938, Reno was an exceptional student, earning Valedictorian honors at her high school and going on to Cornell University where she earned a BS in Chemistry. Reno continued her education at Harvard Law School where she graduated with a JD (Juris Doctor) in 1963, as one of 16 women in a class of 500. Reno went to work as a lawyer for private law firms and then shifted to public employment in 1971 working for the Florida State Legislature, then the Dade County State Attorney’s Office until returning to private practice in 1976.
Reno found her niche as a State Attorney for Florida and after first being appointed in 1978 was elected to that office 4 consecutive times, serving in that capacity until joining the Clinton administration in 1993. While working as State Attorney Reno was active in several civic causes, including starting a PBS television show called Frontline as an advocate against child abuse.
Reno’s tenure as State Attorney was not without controversy, as her technique of interrogating alleged child victims was relentless, and resulted in some convictions that were later overturned. Accused of being over-zealous, this legacy dogged her through her tenure as US Attorney General. Another fiasco attributed to Reno was her prosecution of 5 white police officers accused of beating a black male suspect, and all 5 of the officers were acquitted, resulting in riots in Miami. Reno was later accused of grandstanding with an unnecessary and reckless prosecution by conservative pundits.
Reno, with an avowed mission to fight child abuse, was also involved in 2 prominent cases of alleged child abuse (Country Walk Day-Care and the Bobby Fijnje Case) in which evidence was limited only to testimony allegedly coerced from a defendant and from alleged victims.
In spite of these high profile troublesome cases of alleged prosecutorial excess, Reno was selected by Clinton for her groundbreaking appointment. In fact, Reno stands as the second longest serving Attorney General in US history.
Janet Reno enjoyed some success as US Attorney General, especially in prosecuting the UNABOMBER case, the bombing of the World Trade Center, and suing Microsoft for anti-trust activity, and the arrest and conviction of domestic terrorists for the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing. Unfortunately, her controversial cases remain as more memorable, especially her handling of the Branch Davidian Standoff at Waco, leaking Richard Jewel as a suspect in the Atlanta Olympics bombing (Jewel was totally innocent), awkward handling of the Elian Gonzales case, failing to successfully defend the Communications Decency Act, and being found in Contempt of Congress in conjunction with the impeachment of President Clinton.
Reno also ran unsuccessfully for Governor of Florida in 1984 and 2002, the 2002 election tainted by allegations of voter fraud against her opponent (Republican).
Janet Reno faced the unfortunate fate of so many female pioneers by being compared against an ideal of heterosexual attractiveness, an attribute NOT essential to performing ably as an Attorney General. Mean spirited critics dwelled indelicately on her rugged, unfeminine appearance, and whispers accusing her of being a closeted lesbian (she never gave any verbal confirmation of being a lesbian, and in fact denied it mildly) based on her failure to produce a male spouse or steady boyfriend. The television iconic show, Saturday Night Live, made fun of her by having Will Ferrell play a manly caricature of her in skits. Reno personally appeared in the skit, Janet Reno’s Dance Party, in 2001 on SNL alongside Ferrell, proving she had a sense of humor.
Reno died in November of 2016 at the age of 78 of Parkinson’s Disease, an illness she was first diagnosed as having in 1995. Janet Reno received several awards for her service and lent her voice to Dark Knight Course and the Simpsons television shows as herself. Her main legacy of course is opening the “glass ceiling” just a bit more by her pioneering service as US Attorney General, a milestone in the history of Women’s Rights and achievements.
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For more information, please see…
Simon, Charnan. Janet Reno: First Woman Attorney General (Picture Story Biography). Childrens Pr, 1994.