In 1993, Janet Reno became the first woman to serve as attorney general of the U.S., serving in the nation's top law enforcement job for almost eight years during President Clinton's administration. A self-described “awkward old maid” who stood 6'2", Reno won respect from average Americans for helping the president win congressional approval of the 1994 crime bill, the most substantial crime legislation in U.S. history. Raised in a log-cabin home at the end of a swamp, Reno used hard work and determination to make her way up the ranks. She graduated from Harvard Law and started her career in politics in 1971 when she was named staff director of the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives. In 1978, she became state attorney, and was subsequently reelected to the post five times, even though she was a Democrat in a largely Republican area. Not only was Reno the first woman to serve as the country's attorney general, her successful eight-year tenure made her the longest serving attorney general since before the Civil War. Among her notable awards, Reno has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame, was named "Woman of the Year" by Glamour magazine, and was awarded the Justice Award by the American Judicature Society.
Reno's rise to national prominence can be traced back to her college days when she enrolled at Cornell University in 1956. Despite her humble beginnings, Reno had excelled in high school, earning acclaim as a debating champion and as her class's salutatorian. But her work was only just beginning. At Cornell, Reno served as president of the Women’s Student Government Association at a time when dormitories and dining halls were segregated by gender and only women generally had curfews on campus. Unlike many of her wealthy classmates, money was always tight, and Reno earned room and board as a waitress and dormitory supervisor. In 1960, she graduated with a bachelor of arts in chemistry with grades good enough to gain admission at Harvard Law.
Over the years, Reno’s connection to her alma mater strengthened in multiple ways. In 2001, she was Cornell’s Senior Convocation speaker during Commencement Weekend; and that same year she was appointed a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ‘56 Professor at Cornell for a three-year term. As a Rhodes professor, Reno participated in numerous campus symposiums and class discussions, in addition to lecturing on the impact of the presidential election on violence against women in the U.S. She also served on the President’s Council of Cornell Women. In her 2001 Convocation address, Reno explained that Cornell’s diversity broadened her view. “The strength of Cornell to me [is that it] is a world of [the] world’s people . . . more diverse than anyplace I had ever been.”