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Acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates Delivers Remarks at the 2015 Department of Justice Women's History Month Observance Program


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Karol [Mason], for that kind introduction and for your leadership of the Office of Justice Programs.  I also want to thank the JMD EEO (Justice Management Division Equal Employment Opportunity) staff for coordinating today’s observance program and each component EEO office for their programs to celebrate Women’s History Month.

Good morning everyone.  It is an honor to be with you this morning as the department celebrates Women’s History Month.

And we have a lot of women’s history to celebrate.  Some might say that it’s a remarkable sign of progress that the president has nominated two women to serve in the top two leadership positions in this department.  But it’s even more remarkable that this isn’t the first time that’s happened.  As you know, the department thrived under the leadership of Attorney General Janet Reno and Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick.  Thanks to President Clinton’s support of these two talented women, that barrier was broken nearly 20 years ago.  We are approaching a world where a person can accomplish great things without that person’s gender being particularly noteworthy.  We are certainly not there yet – but we have come a long way. 

And this is a good thing not just for women.

The department thrives when all of our talent – lawyers and staff of all backgrounds, ethnicity and gender – are able to succeed.  We all have a part to play in helping women and men achieve their potential within this department.  Attorney General Reno, Deputy Attorney General Gorelick, Loretta and I would not have had the opportunities we have been privileged to enjoy at the department without the support of women and men who have recognized and promoted us, including President Obama, who has been a powerful advocate for women, and Attorney General Holder, who nominated Loretta and me to his Attorney General’s Advisory Committee and supported our leadership in our home districts.

I am happy to report that while we still have much work to do, the department has been at the forefront of recognizing the important role that women can and should play – even at a time when that was quite rare.  In fact, it was a hundred years ago this past October that the Justice Department appointed its first female prosecutor.  Fortunately, we have made significant progress since that time and today the department employs more than 44,000 women.  The JMD library staff has arranged an important exhibit, which is posted on the library’s intranet page and I hope you will check it out.  This site details the history of prominent women in the Department of Justice, including Attorney General Reno, Justice Elena Kagan and others whose names will be less familiar but whose impact remains pivotal both as women and leaders who have helped weave the significant accomplishments that are a part of the fabric of our department. 

The theme of this year’s Women History Month is “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.”  This theme reminds us that there is no single story of success.  Women in this department have benefitted from one another and their female predecessors, as well as from their male supervisors and colleagues, to help thread our interlaced stories into a broader narrative that we celebrate today. 

That theme speaks to my own story and how I came to stand before you today.  I’m proud to have served as first female United States Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.  But I didn’t make it there on my own.  There were many individuals – both male and female – who helped me along the way.  I owe tremendous gratitude to the line attorneys who did brilliant work that I was proud to support and the many agents in the field who helped ensure we had solid facts to develop successful and important cases.

And there is another group of people who were crucial to forming the path that helped lead me to this podium today – my family.  On a daily basis, I draw inspiration not only from my grandmother, who was one of the first women to pass the Georgia bar exam, but also my father and grandfather, both lawyers and later judges, who recognized the power of the law to right wrongs.  I haven’t just been inspired by my family.  On a daily basis I have been supported by them.  My husband, himself a former trial lawyer, and I worked together to make sure that our real pride and joy, our children, were always supported at home and represented at a school event and he inspired me with his dedication to our family, our community and his own pursuit of justice on a daily basis. 

But my story – my path from line prosecutor in Atlanta to a new office on the fourth floor of this building – has more characters than that.  My story – our story, here at the department – includes the women who came before us in this department; who broke barriers so we don’t have to. 

One of the women you can learn about through the JMD library exhibit is Annette Abbott Adams, the department’s first female prosecutor.  Her story is all too familiar.  She graduated from Boalt Law School at Berkeley in 1912 as an academic star.  When a prominent employer asked the dean to recommend the “best man” of the graduating class for a legal job with the company, the dean submitted Adams’ name.  The employer quickly rescinded the offer.  But Adams could not be deterred.  She hung her own shingle, working with another female lawyer in Northern California.  The San Francisco Examiner covered this achievement with a cartoon of women sewing curtains for their office, captioned with the headline “pretty lawyers do needlework in office.” 

But Adams wasn’t deterred.  She sought out cases that brought her into federal court and onto the government’s radar.  She also won the support of several influential male mentors, including John Preston, then the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, who saw her grit and promise.  In 1914, Preston offered her a position as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in his office – an offer that was initially blocked by Washington (it’s true, we don’t always get it right at Main Justice), and only approved months later after a public outcry and the lobbying of suffragists.  Her initial salary of $1,800 – well below her male counterparts – was finally raised after Preston asked the Attorney General to ensure that all of his prosecutors were paid equally.

Like so many women, once given the opportunity, Adams thrived.  By 1918, Preston had taken a new job in the department and Adams replaced him as the U.S. Attorney.  By 1920, she was an Assistant Attorney General.  She argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, supervised several major prosecutions and later spent a decade as a distinguished California State Appeals Judge. 

We have made much progress since Annette Adams, and I am hopeful about the path forward.  We have tools and resources available today that would have astonished Adams and her compatriots.  Within the department, we take pride in Attorney General Holder’s diversity initiative – which prioritizes recruiting, retaining and promoting a diverse team of outstanding women and men.  This diversity is vital – not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but because it ensures that the department taps the full potential of our community and our workforce and importantly ensures that we fairly represent the public we serve. 

Adams’ story is also a useful reminder that no story of female achievement includes only one character.  Adams had to work hard – harder than her male counterparts at times – but she also had to rely on those around her to fully realize her potential.  She was guided along the way by others, including men, who weren’t intimidated by her success and who realized that encouraging the advancement of smart, talented, committed people, regardless of gender, benefits us all and makes for a better and more effective Department of Justice. 

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let’s remember how many stories of success there are out there, and how many more we can help weave together.

Thank you.


Updated March 26, 2015