Florida Remembers Janet Reno

Florida native Janet Wood Reno made history when President Bill Clinton appointed her to serve as the first female U.S. Attorney General in 1993. Prior to her work in Washington, Reno had already made waves in Florida after becoming the first woman elected as state attorney in 1978. Janet Reno died at her home early Monday morning. She was 78 years old.

Portrait of Dade County State Attorney Janet Reno, 1978.

Portrait of Dade County State Attorney Janet Reno, 1978.

Born in Miami on July 21, 1938 to journalists Jane Wood and Henry Reno, Janet Reno grew up surrounded by intellectual stimuli.  When thirteen-year-old Janet announced to her mother, an investigative reporter for the now defunct Miami News, that she aspired to attend law school, her mother encouraged her to realize her dreams. “You can do anything, be anything you really want to be, regardless of whether you’re a woman….You want to be a lawyer? You can be a lawyer,” remembered Reno of her mother who died of cancer in 1992.  After graduating from Coral Gables High School in 1956 and Cornell University in 1960, she applied to Harvard Law School.  Upon learning of her daughter’s acceptance to the program, Reno’s mother “whoop[ed] with joy,” explaining that she had always wanted to become a lawyer, too.

Portrait of Janet Reno's father, Miami Herald crime reporter, Henry Olaf Reno, ca.1930. Attorney General Reno greatly admired who father, who immigrated to the United State at age 12 in the 1910s. He became editor of his high school yearbook and went on to enjoy a 42 year career as a journalist in Miami.

Portrait of Janet Reno’s father, Miami Herald crime reporter Henry Olaf Reno, ca.1930. Attorney General Reno greatly admired her father, who immigrated to the United States at age 12 in the 1910s. He became editor of his high school yearbook and went on to enjoy a 42-year career as a journalist in Miami.

In 1963, Janet Reno was one of just 15 women–in a graduating class of 500–to earn a law degree from Harvard. As a young lawyer in the 1960s, Reno overcame several hurdles before rising to political prominence in the 1980s and 90s. She applied for a clerkship with a law firm the summer after graduation, but the firm rejected her application because of her gender. “I felt mad,” admitted Reno. “[I] went and got a job at another law firm. I never let it bother me after that,” said the future U.S. Attorney General, who, fourteen years later, would make partner at the very same law firm that had originally rejected her on account of being female. She briefly served as staff director to the Florida House Judiciary Committee before mounting a failed campaign for a seat in the Legislature in 1972. “The loss was painful,”  according to Reno. But she wasted no time wallowing in defeat, and moved to Tallahassee where she quickly made inroads with the Governor’s Office, serving as assistant state attorney for the Eleventh Judiciary Circuit from 1973-1976. She then went to work in private practice, until Governor Reubin Askew appointed Reno to serve as Dade County State Attorney in 1978, the first woman in Florida to hold that position. In November 1978, Janet Reno won election to the post by a 74-point margin.

Janet Reno taking her oath as Florida's first female state attorney, 1978.

Janet Reno taking her oath as Florida’s first female state attorney, 1978.

As Miami’s senior prosecutor from 1978 to 1993, Reno faced repeated criticisms for her handling of several high-profile racially sensitive cases. Nonetheless, she remained steadfast in her intent to uphold the integrity of the judicial process. “I don’t ever want to be accused of pleasing one group at the expense of justice,” she maintained. Governor Lawton Chiles commended her for showing “great character and courage” as state attorney, and another colleague qualified the heated critiques of Reno noting that “some of the cases were not winnable. She had the courage to go forward with the prosecutions and maybe other prosecutors would not have. I can’t fault her for that.” During her fifteen years representing the Florida metropolis, Janet Reno was never one to stay holed up in her office. She kept her home phone number listed in the city directory, mentored wayward teenagers, and visited schools and women’s shelters with messages of hope and perseverance. On her approach with victims of domestic violence she said: “Despite what these women have been through, you have to show them how not to feel like victims. You try to work with them in every way you possibly can–serve as an example for them, show them they can be somebody, show them what they can do, what their daughters can do.”

Dade County State Attorney, Janet Reno, seated next to Director of Metro Public Safety, Bobby L. Jones during forum entitled

Dade County State Attorney, Janet Reno, seated next to Director of Metro Public Safety, Bobby L. Jones during forum entitled “Perspectives on Race, Crime, and the Criminal Justice System” held at Miami-Dade Community College, 1981. As state attorney, Reno unsuccessfully prosecuted four white police officers in the 1980 beating death of black insurance agent, Arthur McDuffie. The acquittal sparked outrage among Miami’s black community. Reno responded to this and other racial tensions by meeting with the community, speaking at schools, and opening her office to speak with blacks and Latinos.

Her grassroots approach in Miami caught the attention of the incoming presidential administration of Bill Clinton, who nominated Reno for appointment as the first female U.S. Attorney General in 1993. “Janet Reno is far and away the best candidate for this job that President Clinton could have nominated,” remarked Florida Senator Bob Graham.  After recounting the story of how her late mother built their family home brick by brick, Reno translated the family story into a folksy testimony of how she planned to approach the impending office. “… [T]hat house stands as a symbol to me, that you can do anything you really want to, if it’s the right thing to do and you put your mind to it,” she told the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee confirmed her appointment as U.S. Attorney General in March 1993.

Portrait of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, 1993. Reno was inducted into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame in 1993.

Portrait of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, 1993. Reno was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

The newly-appointed attorney general attracted heavy media buzz during her first month in office, a phenomenon many referred to as “Reno-mania.” However, the six-foot one-inch tall,  U.S. Attorney General, who described herself as a “54 year old awkward maid [with] a messy house,” rejected the fanfare of high-profile political life. She remained focused instead on the great responsibility of being “the people’s lawyer.” Reno refused to engage the suggestion that she only got the job because she was a woman, looking forward instead: “I don’t know whether that’s the case or not, but having been offered it [U.S. Attorney General] I’m going to do the best I can.” Early on in her tenure, Reno envisioned a legacy  tied to creating “equal opportunity for all the children of America” and doing everything she could to “put the families first.” Her platform included a sensible stance on crime, working with health and education officials to reduce juvenile crime, protecting the environment by enforcing anti-pollution laws, and upholding civil rights. Despite an ambitious, reform-minded agenda, the attorney general inevitably found herself at the center of numerous federal controversies. But Reno’s unprecedented willingness to assume responsibility for her decisions, whether perceived rights or wrongs, endeared her to many constituents. “I made the decision. I’m accountable. The buck stops with me,” she famously remarked after her regrettable decision to allow federal intervention of the Branch Davidian Complex in Waco, Texas in 1993 led to the deaths of dozens of people. “That was the hardest decision I ever had to make. I will live with it for the rest of my life,” conceded Reno. Though Janet Reno’s time in federal office was certainly not without indiscretion, many Americans found her honesty and candid delivery refreshing.  Reno served as U.S. Attorney General until 2001, earning the additional honorarium of longest serving attorney general of the twentieth century.

Janet Reno (left) poses for picture with first female president of the Florida Bar Patricia A. Seitz (center) and first female Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court,Rosemary Barkett in commemoration of Seitz's historic installation, 1993.

Janet Reno (left) poses for picture with first female president of the Florida Bar Patricia A. Seitz (center) and first female Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court,Rosemary Barkett in commemoration of Seitz’s historic installation, 1993.

Upon returning to Florida, she put in a bid for the 2002 Florida gubernatorial race, but lost the primary to Democratic opponent Bill McBride, and subsequently retired from political life. During the last decade of her life, Janet Reno enjoyed a quiet life in the Florida Everglades. “I don’t think I’m a gregarious person, in the sense of having a lot of casual friends. I have a few people I am very close to,” she explained to a reporter soon after winning the state attorney race in 1978. On November 7, 2016, Janet Reno, the trailblazing lawyer with the impeccable integrity, died in her home, surrounded by her closest family and friends.

Women’s Equality Day: The First Ladies of Florida Politics

In 1929 a journalist reported on Florida’s first U.S. Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen’s unusual problem: no pockets! Unlike her male colleagues — whose suits were constructed with upwards of thirteen pockets — Owen’s feminine professional attire provided little room for storing the necessities men typically kept in their pockets. Insisting she needed her hands to orate and handle important bill files, Owen reportedly fashioned a makeshift knapsack with a long strap to wear across her shoulders. With her hands free, Owen helped represent the first generation of women in politics, advocating on behalf of her constituents in the 4th congressional district of Florida from 1929 to 1932. Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen, like many of Florida’s pioneering female politicians, faced new and unexpected challenges after winning the right to vote in 1920.

Since 1971, Florida has joined in the nationwide observance of Women’s Equality Day on August 26th. Women’s Equality Day commemorates the anniversary of the enactment of the 19th Amendment (see our blog on Florida’s women suffragists), which granted women’s suffrage, and symbolizes “the continued fight for equal rights.” Today, in honor of 96 years of women participating in Florida politics, we have profiled the history and achievements of four of Florida’s most path-breaking female elected officials.

Portrait of U.S. Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen, c. 1929.

Portrait of U.S. Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen, c. 1929.


Ruth Bryan Owen, Florida’s First U.S. Congresswoman (1929-1932)

The daughter of famed U.S. Congressman and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, Ruth Bryan Owen (1885-1954) became a ground-breaking politician in her own right after being elected to serve as Florida’s first female congresswoman in 1928. Having grown up in a well-connected, politically active family, Owen was fascinated by government. As a young girl in the 1890s, she delighted in watching her father debate in Congress, earning her the nickname “sweetheart of the house.” After living abroad with her husband during WWI, Owen settled in Coral Gables, Florida, and soon developed a reputation as a strong public speaker and political organizer. In the early 1920s she served as President of the Community Council of Civic Clubs and represented Florida on the National Council on Child Welfare. Though she lost her first campaign for Congress in 1926, she tried again in 1928 — touring her green Model T on an aggressive 500 stop speech-circuit from Jacksonville to Key West — and won.

Ruth Bryan Owen during congressional campaign, c. 1928.

Congressional candidate Ruth Bryan Owen poses with her secretary, driver and campaign car, “The Spirit of Florida.” Photo by G.W. Romer, c.1928.

As a congresswoman, she advocated for establishing the Everglades as a national park; expanded protections for children and families; and secured funding for a youth citizen program, which brought future leaders to Washington. “I like Congress. [I] always like work you feel you can do and I like to work for the people in Florida,” Owen said about her post. After a dry posture on alcohol prohibition caused her to lose reelection in 1932, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Ruth Bryan Owen U.S. Minister to Denmark and Iceland, and once again she broke new ground as the first woman to hold such a high profile diplomatic position.

Name tag worn by student delegates to the Second Ruth Bryan Owen Brigade, 1931.

Owen enacted a youth civic engagement program and invited a delegation of students from each of her district’s 18 counties to shadow her in Washington.

Of this initiative she wrote: “I think there are two qualities all young people have. One is energy and the other is idealism. [If] it is just possible to translate government into the terms which appeal to that sense of idealism in youth we not only give to youth the most wonderful interest in the world, but we bring a powerful aid to government.”

Beth Johnson, Florida’s First Female State Senator (1963-1967)

Advertisement for Beth Johnson's State Senate campaign, c. 1962.

Advertisement for Beth Johnson’s State Senate campaign, c. 1962.

Elizabeth “Beth” McCullough Johnson (1909-1973) took her place in Sunshine State history when she won the distinction of being the first woman elected to serve in the state senate in 1962. After graduating with a B.A. from prestigious Vassar College in 1930, Johnson relocated with her husband to Orlando in 1934. For the next two decades, the mother of three children assumed leadership positions in various local civic organizations like the Orlando Junior League, the League of Women Voters, and the Orlando Planning Board. In 1957, she became the second woman elected to the Florida House of Representatives and subsequently won reelection until 1962 with her historic election as the first female state senator.

In the Florida Senate until 1967, Johnson championed educational access and mental health issues, taking on membership in the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, Constitution Revision Commission, and the Legislative Council Committee on Mental Health. Specifically, she advocated for daytime access to adult education, lamenting that “too many feminine Phi Beta Kappa minds are in the kitchen. They should be going to college during the same hours their youngsters are attending school.”  Perhaps her greatest achievement as senator came in 1965 when she pushed for the passage of a $7.5 million bond program for the construction and establishment of the University of Central Florida in Orlando.  For her accomplishments, Senator Beth Johnson received the Susan B. Anthony Award as Democratic Woman of the Year in 1966 as “the woman who most nobly, ably and conscientiously exemplifies the entire spirit of the 19th Amendment.”

Carrie Meek, Florida’s First African-American Member of U.S. Congress since Reconstruction (1993-2002)

Portrait of Representative Carrie Meek, 1984.

Portrait of Representative Carrie Meek, 1984.

The 1992 election of Florida Congresswoman Carrie P. Meek (b. 1927) signaled the start of a new era in Florida politics: Meek would be Florida’s first African-American representative in U.S. Congress since Reconstruction. Although the 19th amendment barred voter discrimination on the basis of sex, it did not address the longstanding tradition of racism at the polls. The passage of the 24th Amendment in 1964, which outlawed poll taxes, and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, which spurred the fair redrawing of congressional districts, helped combat this racism. Carrie Meek, the granddaughter of former slaves, would lead the way for a new generation of black politicians in Florida.

Born in 1926, Meek grew up as the daughter of sharecroppers in the “black bottom” neighborhood of Tallahassee, receiving her education at the segregated Lincoln High School and Florida A&M University before earning a graduate degree from the University of Michigan.  In 1961, the newly divorced mother of two accepted a teaching position at Miami-Dade Community College (then Dade County Junior College). In 1978, after two decades as an educator, administrator, and community activist, she successfully campaigned for a spot in the Florida House of Representatives. A few years later in 1982, she became the first African-American woman elected to the Florida State Senate. During her tenure in the Florida Legislature, Meek advocated for gender, racial and economic equality.

State Representative Carrie Meek seated in the Florida House Chamber, c. 1980.

Representative Carrie Meek seated in the Florida House Chamber, c. 1980.

From there, the 66-year-old grandmother set her sights on a federal ticket, capturing 83 percent of the vote in her historic 1992 run to represent Florida’s 17th congressional district on Capitol Hill. But, as Congresswoman Meek saw it, her responsibilities stretched beyond her Miami-based constituency to blacks throughout the state, who now, for the first time in over a century, had political representation in the federal lawmaking body: “[African-Americans in Florida will] have somebody they know will be attuned to their needs… Many [whites] are sensitive but they can’t really understand how hard we’ve had to struggle.”

During her first years in Washington, Meek fought hard for a spot on the powerful House Appropriations Committee — a position typically closed to freshmen representatives — and made federal funding to relieve the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in Miami a top priority. Among other initiatives in Washington, Meek sponsored bills related to immigration and welfare reform, as well as increased entrepreneurial opportunities for African-Americans. In 2002, at the age of 76, Carrie P. Meek decided not to seek re-election due to her age. Upon her departure, she expressed deep affection for the ten years she spent in Washington: “I wish I could say I was tired of Congress [but] I love it still.”

Paula Hawkins, Florida’s First Female U.S. Senator (1981-1986)

Portrait of U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins, 1980.

Portrait of U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins, 1980.

U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins (1927-2009) still holds the title of the only Florida woman elected to serve in the upper house of Congress.  Hawkins also carries the distinction of being the first woman to win a full Senate term without a political family connection.  Before representing Floridians in Washington, Paula Hawkins lived in Winter Park and served on the Florida Public Service Commission from 1973-1979. She ran two unsuccessful campaigns, one for U.S. Senate in 1974 and the other for lieutenant governor in 1978. Then, in 1980, the “fighting Maitland housewife,” who stood on a platform of conservative family values, won the race for U.S. Senate by a landslide — making her just one of two women in the U.S. Senate at the time. Shortly after her victory, a male reporter sarcastically asked who would do the laundry while she was busy lawmaking. “I don’t really think you need to worry about my laundry,” snapped the first female senator to bring her husband with her to Washington.

In the U.S. Senate, Hawkins emerged as a tireless advocate for children, families  and drug-free youth.  Among her major legislative achievements, Senator Hawkins sponsored the National Missing Children’s Act in 1982, which allowed for federal intervention in state kidnapping cases and created the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. On her crusade for children’s welfare, Paula Hawkins even spoke openly about how her own experiences as a child abuse victim inspired her fight for neglected and mistreated children in the Congress. “I can recall today how terrified I was…. I was embarrassed and humiliated…. Now, when children complain, I believe them,” she revealed to her constituents. Despite her advocacy for vulnerable youth, Hawkins ultimately lost a heated reelection race against Governor Bob Graham in 1986.  Nonetheless, her unmatched service as Florida’s first and only female U.S. Senator keeps her ranked high among the state’s most accomplished women in politics.

These are profiles of just four of the many Florida women who shaped state and national politics in the twentieth century.  For additional resources on the history and contributions of women in Florida, check out our Guide to Women’s History Collections.