Thank you, President [Susan] Kovarovics, for that kind introduction and for your exemplary leadership of the Women’s Bar Association (WBA). I also want to congratulate Lieutenant General [Flora] Darpino on being named the WBA’s woman lawyer of the year. As the first woman to serve as the Army’s Judge Advocate General, you are an inspiration to women everywhere and I am grateful for your decades of service to the American people. It is a pleasure to be here this evening with so many outstanding lawyers, distinguished judges and dedicated leaders. And it is a great privilege to receive this award named for Janet Reno – a public servant I greatly admire and a woman who greatly transformed the Department of Justice – and bestowed by the women’s bar association of the District of Columbia – an organization that, for nearly a century, has worked tirelessly to make our profession more fair and our nation more just.
The women’s bar association is a trailblazing organization – although that is not surprising given your history. Pushing ever on through adversity is in your DNA. You know the history – this organization hails from 1917, when Ellen Spencer Mussey and Emma Gillet set its roots into the ground of women’s legal fellowship and scholarship. That very action – the establishment of a bar association for women was a tremendous act of faith in the ultimate progression of our times. It was an act of faith in the law. It was ultimately an act of faith in the women who picked up the legal banner, then and to come. In 1917 this country was still three years away from universal suffrage for women. Women could not hold office or serve on juries; and we could not seek a divorce or inherit property without the consent of a society that viewed us as second-class citizens. But Ellen Mussey and Emma Gillet’s faith was long standing and they were used to working against the odds. In 1898 they founded American University’s Washington College of Law, which began as a school for women who had been denied admission elsewhere on the basis of gender. I had the privilege of delivering the commencement address there this past Sunday, and it was truly an honor to see what they had wrought. And here, tonight, I am so honored to stand before you and celebrate what this organization has wrought. As one of the preeminent bar associations in the District of Columbia, you have worked tirelessly to expand opportunities for female lawyers, challenging our profession to fully embody the principles of justice and equality it is sworn to defend. You helped open juries to women; you have placed women on the federal bench; and you have sponsored scholarships for promising law students and paralegals. But your commitment to equality extends far beyond the bar. The WBA fought to repeal laws that limited women’s ability to inherit property, striking a blow against perceptions that women were not capable of managing our own lives. You endorsed a fair employment practices act in 1962, linking the cause of gender equality to the broader struggle for civil rights. This is, of course, an ongoing battle even today. And since 1954, you have held receptions welcoming newly naturalized citizens to the United States, making clear that America belongs to Americans by choice just as much as it belongs to Americans by birth.
It is fitting that an organization with such a remarkable legacy of fighting for equality under the law should present an award named for Janet Reno. As the first woman to serve as attorney general in American history, she was truly – as the name of this award suggests – a torchbearer. Her example illuminated the path for women throughout the country, especially those of us in the legal profession. Early in her career, she was once told that, “ladies don’t become lawyers.” Fittingly, the person who uttered that bon mot is forgotten by history, while she is not. Janet Reno took little notice of naysayers and she had no time for small-mindedness. She met adversity with strength, criticism with conviction and pressure with grace. She asked for no special favors and she pulled no punches. She was a kick-ass prosecutor from way back. I was then working as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York, and I remember being immediately impressed by her strength, her tenacity and her devotion to the law. From her first day in office, she left no doubt that she belonged in the attorney general’s chair, and that women belonged in the Department of Justice.
I still recall her, barely six months into her tenure, siting before a congressional committee, looking into the events of Waco, and announcing “I don't do spin.” She never did, and because of her example, neither do I. Today, as a direct result of her transformative leadership, women are at the center of every aspect of the Justice Department’s work – from litigation and investigation to field work and advocacy. And women now hold many of the department’s top positions, ensuring that the agency more accurately reflects the nation we serve. In addition to me and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, women head the department’s Criminal, Tax and Civil Rights Divisions; as well as our Office on Violence Against Women, our Office for Access to Justice and our Office of Justice Programs, to name just a few of the leadership posts in the department that are held by women. This is a significant change from just a few years ago – and it would not have happened without Janet Reno.
Of course, her tenure was historic for so many reasons besides gender. Many vital Justice Department efforts were launched on her watch, such as our elder justice initiative, our revitalized work with our partners in Indian Country and our vigorous enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Like so many of her actions as attorney general, these initiatives were born of her unshakeable conviction that the department could always do more to fulfill our country’s fundamental promise of equal justice under the law, and she wanted to ensure that the department would always strive to make good on that promise, no matter who was at the helm – a concern that time has not diminished. Earlier this year, during a stop in Miami as part of my Community Policing Tour, I had a chance to visit with Attorney General Reno, in the house her mother built. Although she was dealing with difficult health challenges, she didn’t want to discuss her illness or make idle chitchat. She wanted to discuss the work of the Department of Justice. She wanted to hear about our work in civil rights and community policing. And she wanted to know about the kinds of tough decisions that were before our office – the kinds of tough decisions that are before every attorney general, including her. It is clear that more than a decade after she left office, she remains as fiercely devoted to the cause of justice as ever before.
Her example of passionate and principled dedication to justice continues to shine through so many of our recent efforts to make our nation more tolerant and inclusive – remaining, as she was fond of saying, in “the DNA” of the Department of Justice. That work includes the steps we’re taking to protect women, from our work to help state and local agencies improve their response to domestic violence and sexual assault, to our partnership with congress to strengthen the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. It includes our efforts to uphold our nation’s civil rights laws, ensuring that no American faces discrimination, intimidation or violence because of what we look like, where we are from, how we worship, whom we love – or even something as profoundly personal and simple as which restroom we use. It includes our actions to defend every eligible citizen’s right to vote, especially in the face of new threats to the sanctity of the ballot box. And it includes our steadfast commitment to ending human trafficking – a heinous crime that disproportionately harms women and children.
These are just a few of the ways that we continue to promote Janet Reno’s stalwart belief that unless the Justice Department is committed to the equal treatment of all, as she once put it, “the very name of the Justice Department rings hollow.” I am extremely proud of all that we have done to make the Department of Justice worthy of its name in this administration. But I have no illusions that our work is near completion – or that we can succeed in that work alone. We depend on the engagement and participation of partners like the WBA – partners who are determined to move this country forward; partners who are resolved to break down barriers of discrimination and to build bridges of opportunity; and partners who, despite the real and impressive progress that they have advanced, refuse to be satisfied. Because our country has not been made stronger and more united over the last two centuries by those who excused themselves from the struggle after achieving their goals. Rather, it has been made stronger by women like Ellen Spencer Mussey and Emma Gillet, who, after fighting for their own professional recognition, opened a law school and founded a bar association. It has been made stronger by women like Janet Reno, who did not stop working for justice on the day that she left the attorney general’s office, but who continued to champion the cause of fairness – even to this day. It has been made stronger by those who are always looking for a higher pinnacle to reach, a more distant milestone to pass and a brighter future to secure for all. That is how we have overcome so many obstacles in our past. That is how we have come so far since our founding. And that is how we continue to march, slowly but inexorably, toward a more just, a more equal and a more perfect union today.
And so I want to thank this organization for refusing to be satisfied over the last century, for always being active, courageous and outspoken. I want to thank each of you for your service to our profession, your commitment to our cause and your devotion to our country. And I want to thank you, once again, for honoring me with this wonderful award.