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Asked to talk about her good times at law school, Kathy Rodgers, president of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, laughs. “There weren’t very many of them,” she says. Those were the bad old days, Rodgers says, at least when it came to law school life. And they weren’t all that long ago, either. It was the early 1970s, and the women’s rights movement was still young. The few women at Columbia Law School, recalls Rodgers, were often regarded as little more than unwelcome intruders in a man’s world. Not surprisingly, she says, “male bias threaded its way through all the courses.” Of course, it wasn’t just limited to the classroom: At Columbia, the gym wasn’t even open to women. And when a panel of distinguished moot court judges took a group of young, would-be litigators to dinner at the Harvard Club, Rodgers found herself having “to go through the doggie door and up the back stairs to the one room that admitted women.” Still, it was in the halls of the law school that Rodgers found sexism at its most offensive. One professor, she recalls, “was notorious for having ‘ladies day’” where he would “just stand you up and pick on you and try to wear you down.” Surviving “ladies day” was, Rodgers now thinks, “one of my best — and worst — experiences in law school.” Worst, for all the obvious reasons. Best, “because I endured it.” Of the offending professor, she quickly adds, “He didn’t break me down.” It helped, Rodgers says, that she’d been rebelling against such treatment since her early teens and was used to fighting back. She’d been conscious since middle school that boys and girls weren’t treated equally. “Boys could go to the field and play field sports, and the girls couldn’t,” she recalls. “Boys had interscholastic sports; girls didn’t. Girls took home economics, and boys took shop.” Rodgers enjoyed home ec, she says, but she “really wanted to take shop — and I couldn’t.” She was allowed to take chemistry and physics classes, even though girls were not encouraged to take those courses. As a result, there were just two girls in her physics class. And, according to Rodgers, the girls were harassed by the teacher. In middle school, at about the same time she was discovering the unequal status of women, Rodgers developed an interest in becoming an attorney. “Law seemed to be a way to help bring about change,” she says. “It seemed to be a way to provide more opportunities for more people in this country.” After graduating from Columbia Law in 1973, Rodgers joined a small firm in New York City and practiced employment law for eight years. Then began what she thought would be a six-month stint at Barnard College as general counsel. Instead, Rodgers stayed 14 years, rising from general counsel to vice president to acting president. She eventually left Barnard to join the nonprofit world, Rodgers says, because “it was time for something new. I wanted something that would allow me to work more directly as an advocate and to have a public voice.” Thus, in 1995, Rodgers began a third career, this time as president of the National Organization for Women’s NOW Legal Defense. There, she found a home at an organization which, in her own words, “is constantly pushing the boundaries [of women's rights], not only through the courts and legal decisions, but also by mobilizing to support legislation.” Under Rodgers’s leadership, NOW Legal Defense has won a number of important U.S. Supreme Court cases, particularly ones having impacting on sexual harassment in the workplace. Among the accomplishments she’s proudest of, Rodgers says, is the work NOW Legal Defense has done to help educate battered and abused women about their rights under the federal 1994 Violence Against Women Act. She also points with pride to NOW Legal Defense’s successful lobbying effort to get Congress to reauthorize that law — at twice its original funding. Yet another of the organization’s great successes, she says, has been its outreach to immigrant women and women of color. “We are opening up options for women,” Rodgers says. “And for men as well, which is important. I don’t think any of us should be locked into stereotypical roles.” The most difficult part of Rodgers’s job, she says, is “confronting on a daily basis [the idea] that women’s rights are still controversial. Women’s equality and full participation in economic and political spheres is still something that people openly question. The far right really sees the nineteenth-century Victorian family as the model: the woman at home and the man in the public sphere. A lot of people still feel that’s the way things should be.” Rodgers reels off a few statistics: “Women still don’t have representative numbers in federal and state legislatures. Just six of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Only 25 of 11,000 NYC firefighters are women. We’re 1.7 percent of the nation’s carpenters. And women are 90 percent of the adults on welfare.” She pauses and adds, “We have our work cut out for us.” To listen to Rodgers for long is to be reminded that the detritus of the bad old days hasn’t by any means all been swept away. But not because Kathy Rodgers isn’t still trying.

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