February 14, 2003

Reno '60 Recalls Years as Student

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Taking a break from discussions of her political career, Janet Reno ’60 sat down with the women of Prof. Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s HD 258: History of Women in the Professions, 1800 to the Present course to reminisce about her time as an undergraduate at Cornell. The interview took place in Balch Hall’s intimate second-floor lounge and was videotaped to become part of the Cornell archives.

Reno began with a brief explanation of why she chose to come to Cornell from her home in Florida.

“It was 1956 and I did not want to be in the South,” Reno said. “I also did not want to be in a city or go to an all-girls’ school, so Cornell seemed like a good choice.”

Reno also admitted to ulterior motives for her decision to migrate north.

“Years earlier, I had seen a picture in the Saturday Evening Post of a football player in a blue jersey that I thought went to Cornell,” Reno admitted. “I thought he was quite impressive, but then I got to Cornell and realized the boy had gone to Columbia.”

As a student at Cornell, Reno’s experience was colored by her employment within the dorms, both as a waitress and supervisor of the girls’ dormitory.

“I was the night girl in Sage Hall, which meant being up until 12:30 and 1:30 a.m. to close the doors at curfew,” she said. “I got to know so many people that way. I spoke with the boys waiting for their dates and heard the problems of the girls when they came home for the night. I can remember one night there was a panty raid and I still have a scar on my leg from when I tried to shield a girl from a broken window when the boys came in.”

Reno expressed her appreciation of her experience as a work-study student while at Cornell.

“Working my way through school taught me that you can get the education you want if you work hard enough,” she said.

On matters of gender discrimination during her stay at Cornell, Reno had few complaints despite the fact that while she was here, women could not live in apartments and had to adhere to curfews though men did not.

“In those days, we didn’t see it as unequal treatment,” she said. “When I thought of unequal treatment, I was concerned with civil rights.”

One of the most striking anecdotes to the audience was Reno’s account of how she spoke personally with the president of the University, Deane W. Malott.

“During freshman orientation, [Malott] said that if we had a problem, his door was open and to come see him. I had an issue in the chemistry department, so I made an appointment and went to see him.”

As to problems faced by Cornell today, Reno cited race relations as an area of the University that needs improvement.

“Looking around the campus, I am still not seeing enough people of color,” Reno explained. “Cornell — and other institutions — need to realize the tremendous strength minority groups bring to a campus.”

The question-and-answer session with students provoked a positive response from participants.

“I thought she had interesting things to say about what Cornell was like in the 1950s,” said Meryl Conant ’03. “I was very surprised that she didn’t have more to say about gender issues and the progress of women at Cornell since her time.”

Archived article by Aliza Wasserman