Constance Cook

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Constance E. Cook (August 17, 1919 – January 20, 2009) was an American Republican Party politician who served in the New York State Assembly, where she co-authored a bill signed into law that legalized abortion in New York three years before the Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1973 legalized the practice nationwide.

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Cook was born on August 17, 1919 as Constance Eberhardt in Shaker Heights, Ohio to Walter and Catherine Sellmann Cook.[1] She grew up in New York City, where she graduated from Hunter College High School.[2] She attended Cornell University, receiving her undergraduate degree in 1941, before being awarded a law degree from Cornell Law School in 1943. She was appointed to serve as Cornell's vice president for land grant affairs, making her the first female vice president in Cornell history.[1]

She worked with a Wall Street law firm for five years after graduating from law school, before returning to Ithaca, where she met and married her husband.[1]

New York State Assembly[edit]

She was hired as a legal assistant to Assemblyman Ray S. Ashbery and ran for his Assembly seat after he left office, winning the race to succeed him.[1] She served in the Assembly from 1963 until 1974, representing Tompkins County from 1963 to 1965, the 138th Assembly District in 1966, the 125th District from 1967 until 1972 and the 128th District from 1973 to 1974.[3] In the Assembly, she represented Tompkins, Yates and Seneca counties, and was an advocate for the expansion of the State University of New York.[1]

Cook drafted a bill expanding abortion rights together with Democrat Assemblyman Franz Leichter of Manhattan, proposed legislation that included no restrictions on the practice of abortion. The bill passed in the Senate on March 18, 1970 after five hours of debate by a vote of 31–26. For the Assembly, the bill was amended to allow for women to have abortions until their 24th week of pregnancy or at any time to protect the life of the mother. As the roll call progressed in the Assembly on April 9, 1970, the legislature deadlocked at 74 in favor and 74 opposed, with one member absent and the Assembly speaker not voting.[1] George Michaels, an Assemblyman from Cayuga County who represented a largely conservative Roman Catholic district, had earlier voted against the proposal, but rose to speak, stating "I realize, Mr. Speaker, that I am terminating my political career, but I cannot in good conscience sit here and allow my vote to be the one that defeats this bill", and asked "that my vote be changed from 'no' to 'yes'"; his prediction regarding his political career was accurate.[4] With the switch by Michaels, the measure passed by a margin of 76 to 73 in the Assembly. Governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller signed the law the next day and the U.S. Supreme Court patterned its ruling in its landmark January 1973 decision Roe v. Wade on the New York law.[1]

Ordination of women[edit]

In 1976, she extended her support to the Rev. Betty Bone Schiess, one of the Philadelphia Eleven, who had been ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church but had not been granted a license to perform her priestly duties by the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York. Cook took the matter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC/EEO) who issued a decision favoring Schiess.[1]

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America passed a resolution in July 1976 that "no one shall be denied access" to ordination in the church based on gender.[1] In November 1976, Ned Cole, the bishop who had blocked Schiess' ordination, indicated that he would have her ordained in ceremonies to be held in January 1977.[5]

Interviewed after Cook's death, Schiess was quoted by The New York Times as stating that the legal challenge played a major role in driving the Episcopal Church to change its stance, noting that "Nothing significant would have happened without the attention of Constance Cook."[1]

Quote[edit]

  • "I didn't really have a sense at that time that we had done something momentous, though it was long overdue ... [L]ooking back now, it seems like a bigger deal." (Constance Cook in re the 1970 New York State abortion bill; as she recounted to the New York Times in April 2000).

Death[edit]

Constance Cook died at age 89 at her home in Ithaca, New York. Her husband, Alfred, had died in 1998. She was survived by two children, three grandchildren and a sister.[1]

References[edit]

New York Assembly
Preceded by
Ray S. Ashbery
New York State Assembly, Tompkins County
1963–1965
Succeeded by
District abolished
Preceded by
New district
New York State Assembly, 138th District
1966
Succeeded by
Gregory Pope
Preceded by
George L. Ingalls
New York State Assembly, 125th District
1967–1972
Succeeded by
Stephen Riford
Preceded by
Frederick Warder
New York State Assembly, 128th District
1973–1974
Succeeded by
Gary A. Lee