Last month, as part of my ongoing community policing tour, I traveled to Miami and Doral, Florida, to learn about some of the innovative work underway there to build trust and strengthen ties between police officers and the residents they serve. But in addition to the opportunity to meet with local law enforcement, civic leaders, and students, my trip to south Florida gave me a chance to visit with Janet Reno, the first woman to lead the Department of Justice and the second-longest serving Attorney General in American history.
I was working as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York when Attorney General Reno took charge of the department in 1993, and I was immediately impressed by her strength, her tenacity, and her devotion to the law. Her calm and steady leadership of the Department of Justice helped to shape the public’s perception of women’s role in government and public service, and to meet with her while serving as Attorney General in my own right was a profoundly moving experience that I won’t soon forget.
Attorney General Reno’s appointment was a watershed moment in the Justice Department’s history, and as we draw near to the end of Women’s History Month, it’s worth reflecting on the path that she forged. The official theme of this year’s commemoration – “Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government” – presented an especially good opportunity to celebrate the ways that we’ve continued to expand our dedication to gender equality, both within the department and throughout the United States. Today, women are central to every aspect of the Justice Department’s work – from litigation and investigation to field work and advocacy. Women also play a prominent role in the department’s leadership – a fact we highlighted at our annual Women’s History Month event with a panel discussion featuring several of the women who head agencies and components at the Department of Justice. That panel was moderated by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, and featured the women who currently lead our Criminal Division (Leslie Caldwell), Tax Division (Caroline Ciraolo), Civil Rights Division (Vanita Gupta), Office on Violence Against Women (Bea Hanson), Office for Access to Justice (Lisa Foster), and Office of Justice Programs (Karol Mason). I am proud to say that the panel served as a powerful testament to our commitment to maintaining a skilled and diverse workforce representative of the American people it is our privilege to serve.
Of course, even as we strive to promote diversity and equality within our own ranks, we’re determined to protect the rights and dignity of women throughout the United States. To name just a few examples: Our Civil Rights Division remains vigilant in its investigations of employment discrimination against women by state and local government employers, and also in its work to ensure that colleges and universities comply with both Title IX and Title IV in their response to student reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Our Civil Rights Division, Office on Violence Against Women, and Office of Community Policing Services recently prepared a guidance document designed to help state and local police departments ensure that their response to cases involving sexual assault and domestic violence are effective, victim-centered, and free from explicit or implicit gender bias. Our advocacy helped to secure new protections for survivors of domestic violence in Indian Country as part of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. And one of my top priorities as Attorney General is preventing and prosecuting human trafficking – an appalling crime that disproportionately affects women.
In these and so many other ways, the Department of Justice is standing at the forefront of the struggle for gender equality. Still, even now, it is clear that our journey towards full equality is far from over. Despite the real and undeniable gains that women have made, we have more work to do. Our problems will not be solved overnight, and our challenges will not be fixed by laws and policies alone. But when I think of the courage and conviction of women like Janet Reno; when I think of the devotion and resolve of the many women I’ve been fortunate to work with throughout my career; when I think of the powerful women leaders we heard from today; and when I think of all that we’ve accomplished in just the last few months, I am confident that we will continue moving forward – and I am certain that the Department of Justice will be at the forefront of our progress toward a brighter and more inclusive future.