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Janet Reno persevered in the face of some of the worst stereotypes about female leadership

She wasn't necessarily a perfect feminist, but she was still a trailblazer. 

Reno Testifies Before 9/11 Commission Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Toward the end of her tenure as attorney general, Janet Reno told a reporter for the New York Times about her plans for life after serving as America’s top cop. First, she said, she would return to her home in Florida and sit on her porch for a week. Then she would go on a 120-mile kayaking trip through the Everglades, before heading on a cross-country trip in a Ford Ranger pickup truck she had recently purchased. Part of the trip would be with friends, she said, and part of it would be alone.

It was a fitting capstone to the career of the nation’s first female attorney general, a woman who during her eight years in office became one of the most high-profile and controversial members of the Clinton administration and yet remained one of its least understood. Part of this was caused by Reno’s own proclivities: She wore her outsider status like a badge of honor. Perpetually on the outer circle of administration insiders, she favored long walks alone along the C&O Canal and kayaking jaunts on the Potomac to socializing with other Washington insiders. “She is not the easiest person to chat up,” former acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger, who considered himself a friend of Reno’s, admitted.

But part of it is also undoubtedly because Reno was a woman who, in the midst of a greater cultural backlash against feminism, would not and could not abide by the gender norms expected of her. In accepting Bill Clinton’s nomination to be the first woman attorney general, she opened herself up to criticism from both parties and the political pressures bearing down on her. Aside from Hillary Clinton, it’s hard to think of any woman leader in recent history who endured more ridicule for the crime of being a woman who dared to participate in politics. The media obsessed over her height and speculated about her sexuality. She was the endless butt of late-night jokes: “Clinton was relieved when Janet Reno decided to not do what? Corner him under the mistletoe,” David Letterman quipped. Of a decision not to appoint a special prosecutor, Jay Leno joked: “Janet Reno’s toughest decision since boxers or briefs.” On Saturday Night Live, she was portrayed as “a pathetic, love-starved nerd who threw herself at men and danced like a robot on angel dust,” wrote Susan J. Douglas in her book The Rise of Enlightened Feminism.

If any of this hurt her, Reno almost never let it show. She made a cameo in one of the SNL skits parodying her, and appeared on the same late-night shows that made her the punchline. But in one small but revealing exchange she had with the writer Jeffrey Goldberg in 1997, signs of the toll it took to maintain such tough exterior briefly appeared. As a gangly 11-year-old, Reno was put into a dance class to prepare for a cotillion ball. The teacher, who was herself tall, helped her feel comfortable with who she was. ''She made you feel like you were special,'' Reno told Goldberg, as she started to cry. ''I think I've always felt kind of awkward and knobby-kneed, and as my mother said, knock-kneed, and I've oftentimes felt like I was all arms and legs, but after Mrs. Nowakowski, it didn't bother me.''

Reno was no one’s idea of a perfect attorney general. She approved the FBI raid of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, which ended when a fire killed nearly 80 people, including children, inside. “I’m accountable for it,” Reno told reporters later that day. She authorized federal agents to forcibly remove Cuban child Elián González from his relatives’ home in Miami, a decision captured in a searing photograph of the screaming boy facing heavily armed Border Patrol agents. She refused to apologize for her handling of the case against Wen Ho Lee, a scientist who was held in solitary confinement for nine months on suspicions of mishandling nuclear secrets but was later released when the government’s case fell apart.

Republicans accused her of being Clinton’s lapdog for refusing to launch an independent investigation looking into accusations of improper fundraising at the White House; the White House fumed that she allowed an investigation into Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, which eventually led to his impeachment. As a state attorney, she lost a conviction against Miami-Dade County police officers accused of beating a black insurance agent to death; protesters and rioters blamed her for failing to secure the conviction. In establishing a career for herself as a crusader against child abuse, critics say, she helped stoke panic about ritual abuse.

She was not, by any stretch, a perfect progressive or a perfect feminist icon. But she was the one who changed the notions of what an attorney general could look like, helping to pave the way for Attorney General Loretta Lynch to become the first black woman to serve in the job. “Janet Reno was an inspiration & trailblazer for so many women in law enforcement & government — including me,” Lynch wrote on Twitter Monday.

Earlier in her life — when she was one of the few women to graduate from Harvard Law School and was rejected by larger firms because of her gender — Reno probably couldn’t have imagined she’d go on to become attorney general. Ultimately, she was picked because two of Clinton’s prior choices, lawyer Zoe Baird and Judge Kimba Wood, had to withdraw when it was revealed that they had hired undocumented immigrants as nannies. Reno, who was single and without children, stepped into the role, telling reporters at her nomination ceremony, “I’m just delighted to be here, and I’m going to try my level best.”

In 1995, early in her time at the Justice Department, Reno disclosed that she had Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological disorder for which there is no cure. As the years went on, her symptoms increased, leading to speculation that she might step down. She refused, instead becoming one of the longest-serving attorneys general in history. In speaking to the press, her younger sister Maggy Hurchalla described how she dealt with the disease. “She has just gone on,” Hurchalla said. “I think the most striking thing she has done is not worry about people worrying about her.” She was talking about Reno’s health. But the words she used could have described her entire approach to public life.

Marin Cogan is a contributing editor at New York magazine.