Wilma Mankiller and Dorothy Height, we now share our deep sadness for the loss of another: Rhonda Copelon.
Rhonda Copelon, international human rights lawyer, activist and professor -- and our dear friend and mentor -- died of cancer on May 6, 2010.
It is nearly impossible to catalogue all of Rhonda’s characteristics and accomplishments: her creative, brilliant use of the law; her precedent-setting arguments in international human rights and US cases on behalf of women and countless others whose rights are routinely abused; her insistence on the need to address the intersecting impact of race, class, gender, religion and sexuality on our lives.
It is also hard to adequately recount her spirit, which enabled her to fight for so many for so long, to captivate the minds of her students and colleagues, and as demonstrated in a now-infamous story, race 45 minutes to work in her car with the driver’s side door missing because she just couldn’t say no -- to her students, to a friend in need, to the movement.
Rhonda was particularly well known for her role in two key Supreme Court cases, both of which happened to be decided on the same day, June 30, 1980: Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, a landmark case which established that victims of gross human rights abuses committed abroad had recourse to US Courts, and Harris v. McRae, where in an unsuccessful outcome, the Court narrowly upheld the Hyde Amendment -- a law which, as the nation was reminded during the recent health-care reform debate, continues to prohibit federal funding for nearly all abortions.
Later on, as a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, she and her students submitted amicus briefs in the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia that resulted in the recognition of rape as a crime of genocide and torture in international law.
Rhonda was less well known, but should’ve received equal praise, for yet another feat: in arguing Harris v. McRae in 1980, she became the first woman to wear a pants suit before the Supreme Court.
In her 40-year career as a feminist, social justice attorney, Rhonda was a founding faculty member of the CUNY School of Law, co-founder of the school’s International Women's Human Rights Law Clinic, co-founder of the Women's Caucus for Gender Justice, and a trailblazing attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights.
But Rhonda’s greatest gifts were those that couldn't be captured in any title. She was at heart always a teacher, a believer in and a champion for younger generations of activists. She had unwavering faith in her students, in their own intellectual potential and passion for social justice. And she believed wholeheartedly in activism for progressive change -- hard-fought, sometimes won, and always worth the effort.
Rhonda’s passing is a loss for all of us: her family, friends, students and colleagues, the global women’s movement and the field of international human rights.
We will miss her dearly. We will continue to learn from her always.
Sangeeta Budhiraja, Program Officer
Irene Schneeweis, Senior Communications Manager
More about Rhonda, including video excerpts from her legal arguments:
Photos: (top) Rhonda Copelon by Jim Block.
(bottom, from left) Sangeeta Budhiraja, Rhonda Copelon, Irene Schneeweis at the 2009 Ms. Foundation Gloria Awards.