February 10, 2003

Reno '60 to Speak on Experiences at Cornell

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This Thursday, twenty students will have the opportunity to personally interview former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ’60 about her experiences as a female student at Cornell in the 1950s. The interview will be a small, informal event in Balch Hall, open to the public but with a limited supply of tickets to keep the setting intimate.

The students conducting the interview, which will be videotaped for the Cornell historical archive, are enrolled in the course HD [Human Development] 258: The History of Women in the Professions.

“Because Janet Reno was the first female attorney general of the United States, she is worthy of historical attention in her own right … How did she get there? Where was she educated, trained, etc.?” said the course’s teacher, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, the Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow and Professor, human development.

“The fact that [Reno] happens to be a Cornellian means that as social historians, my class will be focusing on her undergraduate experience in the years 1955-60 to see what the University was like for her, and for her cohort of women students,” Brumberg said.

“We will be finding out what it was like for women in the ’50s as opposed to our generation in 2000,” said Afsha Abid ’04.

The class will be speaking with Reno specifically about how her gender affected her experiences at Cornell, as this is the aspect of Reno’s life most pertinent to the class.

“The course … offers students an historical overview of the way women entered and experienced the feminized service professions (teaching, nursing, librarianship, social work) but also more male-dominated professions such as medicine, law, the clergy and the academe,” Brumberg said.

“It makes you see your future differently, how your gender affects what you might become,” Jaffa Panken ’05 said.

A group of 11 students met last Friday to plan the specific topics on which they want to question Reno. Most have prepared by collecting and reading a biography of her life, and the class as a whole has made connections between the historical issues discussed in class and Reno’s biography.

According to Brumberg, “some students have also read Charlotte Conable’s book, Women at Cornell: The Myth of Co-education.”

“Most of the interest for me is actually in Cornell history, the rules that they laid out for women in Conable’s book and how that’s so exponentially different from our freedom now … even just the concept that we are allowed to follow our own initiatives,” Panken said.

Brumberg was reportedly overjoyed when she found out that Reno was coming to campus and that the students would be able to interview her, as she has wanted her students to interact with famous Cornell alumna in politics throughout the 20 years that she has taught HD 258.

“I even spoke to President Rawlings’ office about how we might arrange this, e.g. taking a bus load of students to Washington D.C. to do interviews about the role of gender and the Cornell experience in the shaping of professional expectations and careers,” Brumberg said.

“I felt really honored that we were chosen to do this. I’m a pre-law student, and I always wanted to go into government. For women in government, especially, the very concept of being in the realm of two-party dirty politics is somewhat inherently distasteful. [Reno] represented the ability to do well in politics by being honest and being yourself,” said Amanda Schlager ’03.

“You can always get to hear a lecture by a famous person, but it is rare to be able to actually speak to someone. That is one of the benefits of such a large school like Cornell,” said Nida Chaundry ’04.

“Everyone in the class is really excited. We are finding out things that we want to know about,” Abid added.

“The interview tape will be a historical document for the future. It will contribute to future historians’ knowledge of Janet Reno’s college life and career expectations in the late 1950s; it will also be a very interesting historical commentary on generational differences because the questions that students are asking are not only about historical topics/ideas introduced in my course, they also reflect their own lives as women students at Cornell a half century later,” Brumberg added.

Archived article by Aliza Wasserman