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Former NY Chief Appeals Judge Encourages Women to 'Speak Up'

Judith Kaye, the former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, spoke at a luncheon today sponsored by the League of Women Voters, during the last week of Women's History month. Kaye is currently a litigator with Skadden, Arps.

With the sun casting a dazzling pattern on the waters of the Long Island Sound visible from the window of the in New Rochelle, many members of the public gathered to honor former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals Judith Kaye. The event was sponsored by the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Larchmont-Mamaroneck.

Kaye, a “failed journalist” by her own admission, briefly worked as a social reporter upon graduation from college. Wanting to escape her fate as a chronicler of weddings, she attended night school at New York University School of Law. 

When she began working at prestigious law firm Sullivan and Cromwell, “women lawyers were something of a phenomenon.”

Echoing the universal frustrations of women entering the workplace in the late ’50s, Kaye said, “We were there presumably to meet a husband.

“I did, but the story didn’t end there,” she clarified.

Kaye went on to become the first female partner at Olwine, Connelley, Chase, O’Donnell and Wehyer. In 1983, she became the first female ever to be appointed Associate Judge to the NY Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, by Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Additionally, Kaye has worked to improve the lives of children involved with the court system, and chairs the NY State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice For Children. The organization has established a statewide system of Children’s Centers in the Courts and promoted the development of children in foster care among other things.

Although Kaye made great strides, she said that it is “still difficult today” for women in the workplace and “very easy for employers to slam the door in your face.”

Although women only accounted for 3 percent of the law school population in the late ’50s, that number has steadily increased to 53 percent today. The major positions in law and government, however, Kaye noted, are still only marginally occupied—at 20 percent—by women, who appear to have hit a glass ceiling.

“We’re doing better, but not well enough,” she said emphatically.

A firm supporter of women’s rights in the workplace and beyond, the soft-spoken Kaye said, “It’s important we speak out and encourage women to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams.”

With her shoes kicked off, Kaye spoke informally about a time when she was working on a case that was transferred from Delaware to Florida. After several months of flying back and forth to Jacksonville—with three young children at home—she resigned to the shock of her male partners.

The life lesson she came away with was, “You just have to speak up for yourself—I cannot emphasize that enough,” she said, referring to women advocating for their own well-being.

“That’s something that’s especially hard for women to do.”

Referencing the White House Council on Women and Girls “Women in America” report, “The statistics on gender are grim and no longer tolerable,” she said, continuing, “Together we need to rewrite the statistics.”

Special guest Matilda Cuomo, former first lady under Gov. Mario Cuomo, and mother to the current governor, said that Kaye was an inspiration for all women, and “the most outstanding extraordinary woman I’ve ever met.”

Cuomo spoke to Patch about the importance of organizations like the LWV to help women know the issues and be able to make informed decisions as voters so they can select the most qualified candidate.

Additionally, Matilda Cuomo, a former schoolteacher, spoke passionately about the nonprofit organization she founded in 1987, Mentoring USA, that attempts to provide role models to high-risk kids, as well as to teach life skills like financial literacy and etiquette.

“Kids from middle-high school age need to be carefully taught about diversity, bullying and tolerance,” she said referring to the 8,000 kids in the program who are given one-on-one mentoring by trained volunteers.

Although the program was “eliminated by the new administration in 1994,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo encouraged his mother to keep it going; the program has even gone international, with sites in Italy and Spain.

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