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Remembering Deborah Rhode

photo of Rhode
Chuck Painter / Stanford News Service
Jan 21 2021

During her tenure as director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender -- what is now the Clayman Institute for Gender Research -- Stanford Law Professor Deborah L. Rhode made her mark not only on the focus of the Institute, but on the status of women faculty at Stanford and on the name of the Institute itself. The Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law and director of the Center on the Legal Profession, Rhode was one of the country’s leading scholars in the fields of legal ethics and gender, law, and public policy, as well as an author of more than 20 books. She died on Jan. 8, and those who worked with her reflect on their memories of a woman of towering intellect and her contributions to the Clayman Institute.

Founding Director Myra Strober, a labor economist and professor emerita at the Stanford School of Education, as well as professor of economics at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy), recalls meeting Rhode when she first came to Stanford in 1979. Law Professor Barbara Babcock introduced them. "I remember realizing how incredibly smart she was. It bounced right off her," Strober recalls. "At the same time, she was thoroughly commited to women's issues and scholarship about women. I knew we had an important addition to our numbers."

Rhode served as director from 1986 to 1990 of what was then named the Center for Research on Women (CROW), though it went by a different name when she left. Strober says that after some negative feedback from the administration about the name, Rhode proposed adding the word "gender," resulting in the new name of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. “We thought that a name that talked about women and gender was more inclusive, and a more accurate description of the work that was going on under Institute auspices,” Rhode said of the change, in remarks at the Institute's 40th anniversary celebration. Senior Scholar Edith Gelles says, "The name change reflected the shift from its formative period to a more secure position at Stanford. Deborah presided over that change with grace, dignity and humor." 

Another key initiative came to fruition during this period: the creation of a faculty women’s caucus to raise and publicize issues relating to Stanford women faculty. “We were instrumental in getting the university to publish salary information broken down by gender,” Rhode observed, “getting leadership to rethink its parental leave policy [which, at the time was nonexistent], and more systematically scrutinize policies and practices regarding gender, such as pay equity, child care, [and] promotion rates.”  Carol Muller, founding Executive Director of WISE Ventures at Stanford, remembers Rhode's advocacy well. "Not only a brilliant intellectual and leader, Deborah was someone you could always count on to show up and follow through on commitments, and it was clear that for her, women's needs and issues were not a sideline, or to be marginalized. She 'walked and talked' the centrality of appreciating and fully engaging women's contributions to all forms of scholarly endeavor and academic leadership in order to achieve the excellence so prized at Stanford."

photo of five former directors
Former Directors: Strober, Schiebinger, Rhode, Middlebrook, & Gelpi

The Institute under Rhode's leadership continued to expand its efforts to bring together scholars from a wide array of disciplines and backgrounds to conduct research and share their results with members of the academic community. Rhode described working to reach a broad constituency across campus with Institute programming, and performing outreach to the university’s professional schools. Gelles says, "The Institute had a vibrant scholars’ seminar, comprised of several dozen independent scholars from all disciplines who focused on the study of women’s lives." 

With the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, the Institute hosted a conference on the 20th Anniversary of No-Fault Divorce Reform. One of several Institute books published during this period came out of an interdisciplinary conference on adolescent pregnancy and public policy. Other conferences included “Theoretical Perspectives on Sex Differences,” and “Gender, Culture and Social Movements of the 1960’s.” The Institute’s lecture program, which had been renamed the Jing Lyman Lecture Series in 1981, included presentations during this period on “International Feminism,” “Love and Sex’” and “Women Making Music.”

Commenting on her many responsibilities  as administrator, fundraiser, academic and convener, Gelles recalls, "She was, in all of these roles, friendly, articulate, witty, and above all hardworking in the interests of promoting women’s scholarship through the Institute." Sally Schroeder, associate director of CASBS at Stanford, began her Stanford career as a receptionist / secretary at the Clayman Institute under Rhode. "I remember her kindness and caring, and her interest and encouragement in what I wanted to do in the future (I was much younger then …)." She adds, "And I remember her as a whirlwind, always going."

Karen Offen, a senior scholar at the Institute, remembers exploring international feminism with Rhode. "I was able to get to know her better when we both participated in a conference held in Florence (Italy) in December 1988 at the European University Institute, 'Beyond Equality and Difference,'" Offen says. "Deborah’s thoughtful essay, 'The politics of paradigms: gender difference and gender disadvantage,' made an important contribution to the resulting book, Beyond Equality and Difference: Citizenship, Feminist Politics and Female Subjectivity." Offen also remembers Rhode's "full support for the then-thriving Scholars Program at IRWG," as well as that "she always seemed to have a can of diet cola on hand." 

Rhode maintained her connection over the years with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research (it was renamed again in the 2000s). In recent years, the Institute sponosored a book talk event for Rhode's book The Beauty Bias, one of her most popular titles, and hosted her as part of the 40th anniversary celebration. Some of her colleagues remember Rhode's eloquent remarks when the Clayman Institute featured former Director Marilyn Yalom in its Honoring our Founders series.

Rhode was an integral figure in the Clayman Institute’s early days and will be remembered for her leadership for years to come. Muller says, "Stanford and the world have lost a most impactful scholar and public intellectual. Deborah's deep knowledge, critical insights, impactful analysis, passion for truth and justice, and generous spirit live on through her legacy of prolific writing, teaching, mentoring, and leadership, yet how we will miss her and all that she might have continued to have contributed to make our worlds of work, knowledge, and lives better."

For more about Rhode and her legacy:

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.