By Charlotte Bunch
Rhonda Copelon often worked behind the scenes, but her finger prints, or perhaps I should say brain waves, are all over many of the most important breakthroughs in progressive feminist advances both in the United States and globally.
Friends and colleagues long ago recognized her keen intellectual acumen, her legal and political strategic brilliance, and her unswerving advocacy in the pursuit of justice. It's true that her perseverance could drive us crazy when, late at night in a women's caucus for the UN World Conferences, she would raise a critical point that clearly needed our attention after a document had already gone to the printer. But her generosity of spirit would bring us around more often than not—besides, she was usually conceptually right.
As a young lawyer, working for 12 years at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Rhonda played a critical role in the legal evolution of reproductive rights. She understood how gender connected with race and class in determining women's access to these rights in the United States. Recognizing the everyday realities of poor women and women of color, she successfully argued in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of African American teacher aides in Mississippi fired for being unwed mothers.
And she challenged the federal "Hyde Amendment" cut-off of Medicaid funds for most abortions as lead counsel in Harris v. McRae. To heal the wounds from losing that case, she built with her own hands (and assistance from her many friends) a home in Long Island—one that became a sanctuary for many feminist activists to renew themselves. Yet her vision of reproductive justice in the McRae brief changed, if not the law, then the politics and strategies that profoundly link social and economic rights to personal ones.
Rhonda was also co-counsel in other critical CCR cases challenging racist practices, governmental misconduct and the Vietnam War. In Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, the CCR team invoked the little-used 1789 "Alien Tort Claims Act" to encompass freedom from torture as an international human rights norm and constitutionally part of the "laws of the United States." Filartiga laid the foundation for her continuing work in developing gender perspectives in numerous cases involving war crimes, corporate abuses, and immigrant domestic workers, as well as global women's human rights.
In 1983, Rhonda became part of the founding faculty of CUNY Law School. She also directed its International Women's Human Rights Law Clinic, which she co-founded with Celina Romany in l992. At this point I began to work closely with her, as we discussed how she could bring her legal expertise to the developing global women's human rights movement....
We strategized with activists from around the world on how to bring a feminist interpretation of human rights to the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. There the international community first fully recognized women's rights as human rights, leading some to accuse women of "hijacking the event." Our work continued at the Cairo population and development conference, presenting women's reproductive rights as human rights, and finally to full public awareness of this perspective at the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995.
Feminist scholar Ros Petchesky called Rhonda her "model of a life fully realized."
Even more than her brilliance, Ros cited her friend's "practice of a truly feminist humanity in the everyday—her devotion to younger generations, her fierce and loving presence for her many friends; and her passionate embrace of both politics and fun." Through the CUNY law clinic, Rhonda brought her students along to participate in ground-breaking developments in human rights.
...Rhonda was also always willing to tackle the difficult issues—early on in the McRae case or more recently by representing in a U.S. court Algerian journalists, feminists, and their families who had been persecuted and murdered by armed Islamist groups. That case (Jane Doe v. Islamic Salvation Front and Anouar Haddam) was so dangerous that the clients—including people who had witnessed the killing of their own children—had to remain anonymous. Arab American law professor Karima Bennoune called Rhonda "a nearly legendary figure among Algerians working to oppose religious extremism in their country." In an era of the "War on Terror," said Bennoune, Rhonda understood the importance of "concrete solidarity" with progressives in the Muslim world.
Perhaps above all, Rhonda built enduring personal friendships in her work—making her as one Latin admirer said a "Tesoro," a treasure of the women's human rights movement.
By Ann Cammett
Rhonda's class at [CUNY law school] was fascinating and as you would imagine, often controversial. She 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.
...Luckily, she soon asked me to be her teaching assistant…. being a teaching assistant [for Rhonda] isn't just being a teaching assistant, right? In essence, it's like signing up for a lifetime commitment to Rhonda's global social justice juggernaut!
Once she gets her hooks in you, it's all over. The good fortune for those who work with her is not just that you benefit from Rhonda's passion, creative thinking and generosity of spirit, it is also that you are instantly connected to a (literally) global network of activists that provide more than just camaraderie, but who offer support to each other year after year of grueling, tireless and often thankless work. But no one works harder than Rhonda, which is why it is so easy to be caught up in her orbit… There is always an injustice to tackle around the corner.
I've learned three important things from working with Rhonda:
1) Don't let the current state of the law or your circumstances limit you. … The political landscape is constantly changing and being effective in social justice work depends upon your ability to become a shapeshifter.
2) Patience: The second thing you learn is to have plenty of time, flexibility, and a sense of humor....
3) Finally, what Rhonda offered to me is a model of how one could continue to important work in the world, do scholarship that had meaning (in that it served to improve people's lives); and inspire students, should they choose to, find their own way to make a contribution. And, as it turns out, it has been a good fit for me. But then again, Rhonda knew that back in the day, before I could see it, when she commandeered me into being her teaching assistant – and to my joy – a beloved friend.
By Navenethem Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights
Rhonda Copelon was a tireless and inspiring champion of human rights. She was at the forefront of the movement that ensured that the aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were translated into practice for women everywhere.
Hers was a life of knowledge, passion and courage, as well as friendship and warmth. Rhonda's talent, expertise, and advocacy led to the successful conclusion of Filartiga v. Pena Irala, a landmark case which provided victims of gross human rights abuses with access to United States courts. She co-founded the International Women's Human Rights Clinic at CUNY Law School which under her guidance provided amicus briefs for the United Nations international tribunals for cases involving the worst human rights abuses.
As a former President of the International Tribunal for Rwanda, I can testify to the profound importance of this work in defining rape and other gender-based crimes as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Rhonda's efforts through the Women's Caucus for Gender Justice were instrumental in ensuring that the Statute of the nascent International Criminal Court would include a gender sensitive perspective. Before her death, Rhonda created the Rhonda Copelon Fund for Gender Justice at the Center for Constitutional Rights in order to channel the legacy of her gender advocacy.
She will be mourned with profound affection, respect and admiration by many friends, activists and road companions around the world.