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Kansans defied expectations in early August when they overwhelmingly voted against a measure to strike abortion protections from their state constitution. But they weren’t just responding to the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision, that returned decisions about reproductive health to the states: there are echoes of pre-Roe history in the upset.
Unquestionably, the Kansas referendum mobilized voters, especially women voters, from across the political spectrum to rally for the right to safe and legal abortions. According to voter registration records, the number of Kansas women who registered to vote far exceeded men in the days following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Men also understood the new significance of their state’s long-planned abortion referendum. Kansans poured out in record numbers for the primary, and nearly 60% of them voted against stripping the right to choose from their state constitution.
But as they have in the past, political leaders and powerful lobbies underestimated popular will when it comes to abortion and reproductive rights, especially women’s determination to preserve these rights. That was the case over 50 years ago in New York.
New York today is a paragon of abortion rights, but that wasn’t always true. Between 1828 and 1970, the state banned all abortions other than those necessary to save a mother’s life. Although by the late 1960s, a handful of states had carved out exceptions to their bans, such as in cases of rape or when the health of the child or the mother was at risk—so-called therapeutic abortions—New York did not. New York legislators repeatedly tried and failed to pass such reforms, but Democrats who introduced such measures in 1965 and 1967 were stymied by the politically powerful Catholic Church. Even the backing of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican who in 1966 called for legislators to reform New York’s abortion law, didn’t help.
One Republican lawmaker, a woman, saw a path forward, however. Constance E. Cook had been elected to the state legislature in 1962 and became one of three women to serve in the state Assembly. Born in 1919 and a child of the Depression, Cook knew the importance of women being self-sufficient. She had earned a law degree from Cornell University in 1943, worked briefly on Wall Street, and, in 1949, became the first woman to serve on a New York governor’s legal staff.
A few years later, Cook started her own law practice and extended her political network by consulting for her local Assemblyman. When he announced his retirement, she ran for and won his seat, despite being warned by local party leaders that a woman could never win the election.
Cook believed that women would lobby for, or could be taught to lobby for, outright legalization of abortion as opposed to the narrow reforms that were proposed by her male colleagues. In a February 1967 interview with the Niagara Falls Gazette, she referred to the debates on the abortion reform law as “unrealistic, like how many angels can sit on the head of a pin.” She added, “judging from my mail, the women take a different attitude.”
As a woman, Cook had a visceral understanding of the abortion issue, including, as she later reflected in an oral history, “the awareness of the problem that a woman faces once a month with respect to unwanted pregnancies.” While not personally in favor of abortions, she told a reporter from the Ithaca Journal in March, 1967, “We have got to face the realization that abortions are being constantly performed. This is a situation that needs to be remedied.”
Importantly, the Catholic Church exerted less influence on Republicans than on Democrats, which gave Cook the freedom to operate. She also had the support of the governor and the Assembly speaker. By 1968, Cook added abortion repeal to her agenda. After the Republicans won control of the Assembly in November, she and colleague Franz Leichter, a Democrat from Manhattan, introduced a bill that made abortions performed by physicians at any point in pregnancy legal.
Cook was also influenced by leaders of the women’s rights movement, including influential writer and activist Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1964), who sought her help in the abortion fight. Cook, with Friedan’s assistance, trained the leaders of women’s organizations throughout the state on how to write to their legislators and lobby them about legalizing abortion.
Cook and her allies faced a tougher sell in the more conservative state Senate, but in March 1970, Senate Majority Leader Earl Brydges surprised even his closest colleagues when he brought the bill to repeal the state’s abortion ban, sponsored by another senator, to a vote. Some later reflected that the move was a ploy: they speculated that he expected the chamber to defeat the measure. However, the state Supreme Court was about to begin hearings on a case that challenged the constitutionality of the abortion law, and in mid-March Brydges told the press that he wanted to avoid the legal vacuum that a court decision would create.
The Senate shocked many when, on March 18, 1970, after over five hours of heated debate, it passed the bill, 31 to 26, with support from 18 Democrats and 13 Republicans.
The Catholic Church, caught off guard, ramped up its opposition as the bill moved to the Assembly. To shore up her alliances, Cook agreed to amend her bill to allow for unrestricted abortion up to 24 weeks—the end of the second trimester when a fetus could survive outside the womb. After that time, the procedure could only be performed to save a mother’s life.
But the Church pressured legislators personally: on April 9, 1970, when the bill came to a final vote in the Assembly, nuns and priests walked the floors. The Assembly had nearly passed the bill 10 days earlier but Cook used a parliamentary procedure to postpone the vote when the speaker refused to count the “yeses” from two absentee members. She was certain she had sufficient support, but by the time the bill returned to the floor, a few lawmakers, bowing to pressure in their districts, changed their positions. After four hours of debate, the bill was about to go down in defeat.
Then, moments before the tally was recorded, George M. Michaels, a Democrat from a largely Catholic district, switched his vote, saving the bill, shocking the chamber, and sacrificing his political career.
New York became the second state to legalize abortion (the first was Hawai’i), and the only state that lacked a residency requirement. Within two years over 200,000 women poured into the state for safe, legal abortions. And by setting a standard of 24 weeks, New York’s law influenced the ruling in Roe v. Wade three years later.
The New York Times would later refer to the passage of the 1970 law as “perhaps the most iconic moment in New York’s legislative history.” As an article that ran after the vote noted, Cook had proceeded with confidence, “rarely raising her voice and never doubting ultimate success.”
Cook was matter of fact about her triumph. “The whole thing is really not that tough,” she told New York Times political reporter Francis X. Clines. “It’s basically an educational process, with legislators finally understanding the issue and with the public ahead of them on it.” She called abortion reform, “the final stage in an inevitable victory for women.”
Decades later, told me that in the fight to legalize abortion, she believed her biggest contribution was teaching women how to influence politics. That lesson remains the most important one. In a post-Roe country, when history has turned backward, women must once again act to change the laws that govern their bodies.
Bonnie Eissner, a former history teacher and scholar, is the director of communications at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York (CUNY) and a freelance writer.
2 thoughts on “The Grassroots Fight for Legal Abortion Has Always Been Bipartisan”
Great to learn more about the women behind the movement
Bravo! What a great piece. Has me wondering if Cook were alive today, would she be as stoic about the current repeal as she was about her incredible success. I take courage from this story and resign myself to having to take up the battle all over again. Thank you!