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the Body Politic
Vol. 01, No. 10 - October 1991, Page 15
Copyright © 1991, 1998 by the Body Politic Inc.

Connie Cook: Tiny Giant

Interview by Anne Bower

The year 1970 saw abortion legalized in New York State. The law passed in April that year was the most far-reaching in the nation and the model for the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade three years later.

Many wonderful people, some of whom will be featured in the Body Politic in coming months, were instrumental in the passage of that revolutionary statute. However, it was the diminutive Connie Cook, Republican Assemblymember from Ithaca, who was the guiding legislative force behind the political maneuvering for this reproductive rights victory.

Ms. Cook, one of the few women legislators in New York at the time, became involved with this battle because of her deep commitment to women being full and equal partners in society. She was raised in a conservative home which taught her personal responsibility for herself, which did not depend on the charity of men. Early on, she realized that not being in control of your body means being not in control of your life.

Ms. Cook accomplished much during her 10 year legislative career, but it was her masterful orchestration of the abortion repeal bill that has earned her the undying gratitude of countless women. Larry Lader in his 1973 book, Abortion II: Making the Revolution, says of Ms. Cook,

"Perhaps our greatest asset was the quality of legislative leadership. Connie Cook was a handsome, poised, and literate woman with a motherly sweetness overlaying an unbending will."

Ms. Cook had graduated from Cornell College and Law School, worked for a Manhattan Law firm, been a law assistant to Governor Dewey, and done graduate work in Oslo. Initially, she supported an abortion reform bill introduced in the New York State legislature in 1968. However, she soon realized that what women wanted was not reform but repeal. Larry Lader quotes her as saying,

"The reason why they could never get any votes for reform is that reform is a terrible approach. When you pull in the State in any way -- establishing grounds or hospital committees or any of that stuff -- women are not interested. They'd rather go to an illegal abortionist."

How unfortunate there are not more Connie Cooks in states such as Pennsylvania today. There are few currently serving legislators who measure up to the stature of this tiny giant of a woman. Connie Cook never lost an election and the integrity and political skill she demonstrated in office are a model for all.

Beginning in the October and continuing in the November/December issues of the Body Politic, she tells her story of the fight for legal abortion in New York.

Q: Connie, you were elected to the Assembly in 1962. What made you decide to run?

A: I was connected to Albany for quite some time. I had been on staff working part time as counsel to the Health Committee for several years. During that time, the Assemblyman I worked for became ill in office and frankly, I carried the load for almost two years. I really did all the work.

When the Assemblyman retired, I went to the Chair of the County Republican Party and suggested that I might be considered as one of the candidates. He laughed and said -- no way a woman! I said, "But I've been doing all this work. I know the job and you know I know the job. You call on me all the time to take care of legislative matters."

He was not persuaded, but I decided to run anyway. It was a five-way primary fight. It probably helped me by splitting up their vote. I won handily. And I always won with a good majority.

Q: Do you remember how many women legislators there were in state government when you were elected?

A: There weren't very many -- certainly not in the Republican Party. There were maybe three or four -- then at least one Democrat. That was actually a come down from when I first came to Albany in 1948.

At that time, I served on Governor Dewey's staff as counsel. This experience actually gave me my real background in state government and politics.

Q: Was Governor Dewey an influence on you?

A: Oh, I'm sure he was. I liked him very much. He was a fine lawyer, which impressed me. You don't find that very often in political lawyers. He was
I told them first they had to get someone to introduce the new bill -- preferably a Republican because the Governor was Republican (Rockefeller) and both houses were controlled by Republicans. There was little chance without Republican sponsorship. They looked blank because I don't think any of them even knew a Republican beside myself, and they had just met me.
straight and honest. Probably too much so for his own good -- political good. In this sense, he influenced me, but I was pretty well formed by the time we met. I think you don't get much influence after the age of seven or eight.

However, in Albany in 1948, there were probably more women in government because it wasn't too long before then that women got the vote. These were well-respected women legislators.

Q: Connie, a few years after you were elected, there was a nationwide movement to change abortion laws. How did you get involved with this issue in New York?

A: There had been a sincere, concentrated effort to amend the law by reforming it. The American Law Institute had initiated a study of the situation and proposed a change. This was an important step because, at that time, the word abortion wasn't heard in public. It's difficult for this generation to understand that, but in my youth there were certain things you just didn't talk about.

I was aware to a certain extent, that there was a movement led by people like Larry Lader and Bill Baird to get the laws changed.

An abortion reform bill had been introduced in New York in 1968 and it was defeated.

However, this really wasn't my field. I was deeply involved in education because I had just taken over Chairmanship of the Assembly Education Committee. That involved all higher and secondary education and professional licensing.

I was working with all of the professions at a time when the campuses were aflame in the late 60's. It was a difficult time, so my efforts were concentrated primarily on education until 1969.

Q: What brought you into the abortion struggle?

A: Al Blumenthal had introduced the reform bill in '68. I supported it, but I really didn't like it. I told Al that you were really putting women's fate into men's hands.

There were so many restrictions. At one point, the law said if a woman had more than four children, she would be permitted to have an abortion. Making this a legislative decision didn't seem right.

Sometimes, they wanted a woman to get the approval of a psychologist before she could have an abortion. These little details didn't make any sense at all to me.

At the end of the '68 session I was identified as someone trying to get this bill passed. Also, I was the senior Republican on the Health Committee. I didn't take the Health Chairmanship because of the Education Committee, but it meant that I was in on all the discussions over the abortion bill.

Anyway, I was asked to come down to New York in the Fall and talk to a group of women who wanted to know how they could possibly get this bill passed. They just couldn't understand why the bill kept getting defeated.

Q: Did you make the trip?

A: Yes. I went down and it was a fascinating meeting. It was held in Betty Freidan's apartment at the Dakotas. Rosemary's Baby was filmed there you know. I must see that movie sometime.

Anyway, I'd been raised in that neighborhood and had always wondered what in the dickens that big stone edifice was. Well' Betty was there with T. Grace Atkinson and I believe Flo Kennedy. I don't have my notes with me. Probably Cindy Sissler and Karen de Crow. It was really the New York State chapter of N.O.W.

They had just come from their national meeting.

I told them they didn't have the votes because there weren't enough of the New York City people in the legislature. The control of the Republican Party had recently shifted from upstate to downstate in Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau Counties. Perry Duryea was Speaker, you know.

We discussed it up and down and I told them that the bill was too easy to attack. You can make fun of all those requirements, and you know darn well, that a woman would rather have an illegal abortion than go to a bunch of doctors she doesn't know and explain why she doesn't want to have her baby.

They told me that they didn't like the bill either. They really wanted to get rid of the whole thing -- outright repeal. I told them that made sense to me, but I couldn't see the likelihood of that either.

Q: Were you able to give them any advice?

A: Sure. I told them first they had to get someone to introduce the new bill -- preferably a Republican because the Governor was Republican (Rockefeller) and both houses were controlled by Republicans. There was little chance without Republican sponsorship. They looked blank because I don't think any of them even knew a Republican beside myself, and they had just met me.

I told them the next thing to do was build up a support group, a network. They had to work on setting up the basic lobbying effort -- get a lot of groups from all over to help and make contact with their legislators. For example, Queens had a few Democratic legislators who were on the fence over the Blumenthal bill. I said, you ought to get at them. They said, How? You can see that at time they really weren't aware of how politics operates.

Q: Where did it go from there?

A: I went back to Albany and later I got a call from a woman doctor from Long Island (her name escapes me) who said she couldn't find one Republican who would introduce a new bill. She had found one Democrat. Even Blumenthal wouldn't help because he'd promised someone he wouldn't sponsor an "abortion by convenience" bill -- total repeal.

The doctor asked if I'd do it and I said, yes. Then I called bill drafting and told them to pick up one of the old repeal bills and I'd rework it. Well, there had never actually been a repeal bill introduced.

Fortunately, the man in bill drafting was pro-choice and became very helpful to me. I said I'll draft it myself. All you have to do is take the penal law and bracket out any references. I did it right there and sent it in. That first bill was an outright repeal bill.

Q: Who co-sponsored it?

A: Franz Leichter was the Democratic sponsor. He represented the district in Manhattan where I had met with Betty Freidan and they'd convinced him to do this.

I'd like to make it clear, that Franz was considered a Liberal, but this is not a Liberal or Conservative issue. Remember, it was a Republican Legislature and Governor that put this through. It never would have succeeded under the Democrats because of their ethnic and religious composition.

Q: After it was introduced in '68, were you able to get it out of committee?

A: No. We put it in, but it didn't get anywhere. We tried to get it out of committee, but weren't successful. Then I talked to Don Zimmerman who had been in Dewey's Counsel Office. He said, "Do you really want that abortion bill?" I said, yes. He offered the opinion that it would pass if we'd make a few changes.

At this point, Larry Lader came into the picture and was very helpful with these amendments. I was told this had to go back into the penal law. You can't just leave everything up to the doctors.

You know, the first time around, Mary Anne Krupsak voted against the abortion bill because she felt that by putting it back in the penal law and saying you could have an abortion up to 24 weeks, you were sort of giving state sponsorship or approval to abortion and that isn't what she wanted. Actually, none of us wanted to promote abortions, just make them available where the individual decided.

Anyway, in 1969 we put it back in the penal law at 24 weeks. Don and I had talked about this. Twenty-four weeks was the historic break from abortion "second degree" to abortion "first degree" in the old penal law. Incidentally, I was tickled that the Supreme Court in the Roe decision followed our lead. The Roe case wasn't the key, to me. It was the passing of the 1970 legislation that showed the Court that this would work.

Q: Other states were working on this problem too.

A: California was also in the process of adopting a bill, and Hawaii had passed a reform bill with some restrictions.

There is an enormous distinction here that has got to be understood if anybody is interested in garnering votes to overturn bills if Roe. v. Wade goes down. Our whole point was, you can't hand this decision to somebody else. It's got to be up to the woman. She's the only one who can decide. If you don't believe she's responsible enough to make this decision, you are just putting women down. You are discriminating.

You can only get women to come out and defeat anti-choice candidates if you make sure that this decision is left up to them.

Q: Connie, you started getting support in 1969. How did the process go after that?

A: We brought the modified bill out with a few more amendments. Press Huntington from Long Island would only support the bill if we made it quite clear there would be no forced abortions. He was very worried about the stories he heard concerning women in the South or in mental institutions who were forced to abort. He wanted to make sure abortions would only be obtained with consent. I had no problem with that.

There was also enormous pressure to lower the number of weeks permitted for abortion. We resisted that. During all this, Larry Lader was there helping. I would say to him, "You know I could pick up three votes if we'd lower it to 20 weeks." I told him I didn't want to and he agreed. We both called them the same way.

Q: I understand that your office was the center of the effort for repeal.

A: Yes. I was in the Capitol building with Press Huntington then. He wasn't exactly a supporter, but we managed. My office was the headquarters.

This is what we did. Our whole technique was to get commitments -- YES or NO. If they wouldn't commit, they were MAYBE. I had a little black book. Kept it for years. It's probably at Cornell with the rest of my papers.

I had a very active and fine staff who were outstanding in getting support.

Q: During all this, what kind of support were you getting from your Party's leadership?

A: Perry Duryea was Assembly Speaker then. He was personally very bothered by the issue and so were some of his important supporters and friends. Perry was a pilot and had his own plane. To get more information on this, he flew down to Puerto Rico with a friend and looked at some clinics where women from that area would go for abortions.

When Perry returned, he told me that after what he saw, "I'll be with you on this issue." But he didn't tell anyone else that. Remember, it was his vote that really passed the legislation. But I'm getting ahead of the story.

Q: What about Governor Rockefeller?

A: He was extremely important and produced some pro votes. No one would ever tell you that, though. He was pro and made no secret about it.

In the Fall of '69 he came here (Ithaca) for a fund-raising dinner. We were going to a restaurant and the college kids were out protesting in force. Something had just happened that made them mad. It may have been Attica, I don't remember. Anyway, they were rocking the car, and he's very much like I am. We were so intensely involved in what were talking about we didn't really pay much attention to them. We went into the dinner, and I sat next to him and said we were going to push the bill for outright repeal.

He said, "I don't care what bill you push. I don't care what bill comes to me. I'll sign anything that's an improvement over the current situation." That's enormous support and I knew I'd never have to waste one minute worrying, because when he said something like that he meant it.

Q: What about the Senate?

A: The Senate was a different problem. Brydges was Majority Leader and its always been a mystery why he didn't crack the whip. You have to understand that the Senate is a very different house than the Assembly -- especially at that time. The Leader controlled it -- PERIOD. Hardly ever did a vote go through that the President of the Senate didn't want.

We think that Brydges never made a count. Not like I was doing on every wind that blew on every member of the Assembly and the Senate, too.

Our technique was very simple. We'd get a committee of two or three influential Republicans or Democrats and have them go to their legislators and state the pro-choice position and try to get a commitment out of the legislator. Then they'd report back to my staff and that's how the list was compiled.

Next month, Ms. Cook will continue with the culmination of her efforts in the dramatic April 9th vote. She also discusses the 1972 repeal and offers some observations on politics today.

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