Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration
Greetings! My name is Ann Cammett and I am a professor of law at UNLV, the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Rhonda is the reason I am a law teacher today. And Rhonda would have been delighted to be feted in this way, with laughter and song by her fellow travelers. Before I begin I want to thank the organizing committee – Alison Bernstein, Anita Nayar, Blanche Cook, Clare Coss, Cathy Albisa, Charlotte Bunch, Linda Stein, Pam Spees, Petchesky and Roxanna Carillo. I thank them for the opportunity to speak to you, and for bringing this global community of friends and activists together.
I promise not to be a drag, but I must say this piece: this is the first time I have spoken publicly about Rhonda since her passing, and I must admit that I have experienced a fair amount of trepidation about this moment. After she passed away I was almost inconsolable with grief, even though I had known from the beginning how sick she was. It was only after her death that I realized why I was so taken aback by it. Rhonda was tough, an incredible fighter, and a force of nature. On some level I never believed that she would really die. That was the effect that she had on many of us – she made us believe in the impossible. Now, after she’s gone from us I am left to reflect on what she meant to me during her life and for my life moving forward, and I can honestly say that no one has had more of a personal and professional impact on me than Rhonda Copelon.
Today I have opportunity to offer a few words of praise for this extraordinary woman – my mentor and beloved friend – and one of the most thoughtful, creative, and generous people that I have ever known. In 2009 I was honored – along with Charlotte Bunch – to introduce Rhonda at SALT (the Society of American Law Teachers), where she was to receive their Human Rights award. She asked the two of us to introduce her because she said that we represented “different aspects of what [she] considered [her] human rights practice: [her] pedagogical role as law professor and [her] activist role as an advocate for women’s human rights.” Rhonda’s incalculable contributions to the field of International Women’s Human Rights are well known, and you will hear others comment on that today. What is less known is the enormous impact that she had on her students. So my task here is a modest, but important one: a story about one activist teacher’s profound influence on another, and I’m sure that in the telling I am channeling the story of a hundred others who were privileged to be have Rhonda’s unique style of mentoring.
I will always be grateful for that chance to tell Rhonda at that SALT dinner how much she meant to me while she was still alive. In that introduction I talked about being Rhonda’s teaching assistant for her Family Law class at CUNY Law School, the place where I first began to work with her. But few people know that Rhonda was the reason I went to CUNY to begin with. I met her when I was considering law school in the mid 1990s, spoke to her for a bit, and she said, “You should come to CUNY,” and I said “OK”! Little did I know that it was only the beginning!
Rhonda’s family law class was fascinating and as you would imagine, often controversial. Rhonda had already established herself as a special Supreme Court litigator in reproductive rights cases and all the movements for gender equality, arguing such cases as Harris v. McCrae, which challenged the cutoff of Medicaid funds for abortion. Rhonda’s cases always focused on improving conditions for those most at risk as there was often an economic justice component to her work, and I truly admired that.
During one law school class in particular I was in for a treat when she delivered a lecture essentially equating the institution of marriage with slavery. Even the most stalwart young feminists squirmed in their seats as it appeared that she had shot a thunderbolt through their most core belief systems. But in Rhonda’s inimitable soft-spoken (barely audible style) she continued to in a non-polemical way deconstruct the institution of marriage and challenge heteronormativity, and moreover - push people to think of the family as a political unit like any other, a place where specific rights and responsibilities were countenanced and regulated by society – i.e. a feminist analysis of marriage. To this day I am a social justice family lawyer, owing to the perspective that I developed from working with Rhonda. Rhonda said that she “commandeered” me into being her teaching assistant, and to some degree that’s true only because of her persistent nature, but the reality is that I reveled in the chance to work with this woman of uncommon talents.
Now, I just have to say this: for all her genius Rhonda could be absolutely exasperating! And in the spirit of this event I think it only fair that we talk about that.
First of all, Rhonda was incapable of getting almost anywhere on time. She always had to make several stops along the way to tackle some pressing issue, pick up or drop off people, or a CD, or an important document. Through Rhonda I learned patience.
Second, she had the capacity to change her mind over and over again about even the most minute task: where to have dinner, what time to meet, how to approach any problem, no matter how small;
Finally, few of us have ever been in an important meeting with Rhonda where she didn’t say “just one more thing” at least three times, extending long meetings past the point of human endurance;
So, this begs the question: if Rhonda was such a pain in the ass, why do I miss her so much? Why do we miss her so much?
The answer to that question lies in the heart of everyone here, because she had a way of touching every single friend in a way that made them feel like they were truly special to her.
As for me, over the years this is what I’ve observed:
When Rhonda showed up late it was often because she was tackling an ever growing list of problems which could be taking place anywhere on the globe, or she could simply be ministering to a friend in need. Hell, I can’t tell you how many times I bent her ear asking for relationship advice (if you can picture that!)
Rhonda’s tendency to change her mind, while exasperating to us, was partly the source of her genius. No one was able to see a problem from every conceivable angle in the way Rhonda did, but when she was finished with that process she’d be way ahead of the curve on many issues, and the fiercest advocate you could ever imagine. You’d be glad she was on your side!
Finally when Rhonda would say “one more thing” it was usually because a truly important issue was overlooked during the conversation – and it was usually about gender – and she was usually right. Rhonda, even in her passing, acts as some sort of feminist super-ego in my brain saying “don’t forget your gender analysis”!
But one of Rhonda’s talents was being able to see talent in other people and to help them to utilize their talents in the best possible way, and to bring them along with her. She was my model of how to be an activist law teacher.
What Rhonda offered me was an inspired example of how one could be an academic and continue to important work in the world: scholarship that had meaning (in that it served to improve people’s lives); a way to inspire students, should they choose, to find their own way to make a contribution. And, as it turns out, teaching has been a good fit for me. But then again, Rhonda knew that even before I could see it when she “commandeered” me into being her teaching assistant – and to my joy – a beloved friend.
Another thing I learned from Rhonda is to never let the current state of the law or your circumstances limit you. Because she failed to be limited in her approach to achieving her social justice goals, she was not afraid to take chances. If the federal courts are inhospitable to civil rights, pursue the fight for justice under the rubric of international law… For activist lawyers this is an incredibly important lesson. The political landscape is constantly changing – and it is a mean world out there. Being effective in social justice work depends upon your ability to become a shapeshifter.
I want to close by saying this: It is a rare gift to be able to publically honor someone that has meant as much as Rhonda has meant to me personally, philosophically, and professionally. I may have had the inclination to be an activist law professor, but Rhonda gave me the tools to make it happen and for that I’ll forever be grateful. She was also the best friend anyone could want. We all miss her.