In 2009, documentary filmmaker Sue Perlgut attended the memorial service of Connie Cook '43. "Speaker after speaker after speaker talked about this phenomenal woman," she recalls. Standing with fellow attendees afterward, Perlgut remarked that someone should make a documentary about the trailblazing lawyer and lawmaker. In 2015 that idea came to fruition with the release of Connie Cook: a Documentary.
With the help of New York State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, Perlgut and collaborator Nils Hoover created the film through Perlgut's Ithaca-based company CloseToHome Productions. Celebrating Cook as "a woman ahead of her time," the documentary focuses principally on Cook's fight to decriminalize abortion. Among several public screenings last year was a campus-wide event at Myron Taylor Hall.
Perlgut is now working with women in Ithaca to create a major outreach program that will bring screenings of the documentary to high schools, colleges, and Planned Parenthood facilities throughout the country. "The young women who've seen the film think it's fantastic," she says. "They understand what's at stake."
What's at stake, Perlgut says, are women's reproductive rights. In the 1960s, Perlgut was fighting for those rights on the streets of New York City. At the same time, Cook was fighting for them in the New York State Assembly as she championed a landmark piece of legislation. It wasn't the first time she was in the vanguard, and it wouldn't be the last.
Constance Eberhardt Cook was one of only three women in the Cornell Law class of 1943. After graduating, she worked as one of the first female lawyers in a New York City corporate firm. She went on to serve as confidential legal aid to New York Governor Thomas Dewey and as legislative and administrative aide to Representative R. Ashbury.
In the 1960s and 70s, Cook was one of only three women in the New York State Assembly. As a Republican assemblywoman, she authored and promoted a piece of legislation decriminalizing abortion. This was in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade.
Cook faced stiff opposition, even from many who would have liked to support the bill. Her fellow representatives feared political repercussions, not to mention condemnation from the pulpit at their own churches.
On the floor of the assembly, Cook argued that the bill was crucial, telling her fellow representatives, "There are many who say that this bill is abortion on demand. I submit that it is not. I submit that we have abortion on demand in the state of New York right now. Any woman that wants an abortion can get one, and the real difference is how much money she has to spend. If she has twenty-five dollars, she has it done here under the most abominable circumstances. If she has more money, she can go abroad . . . And if she doesn't have the twenty-five dollars, please don't forget that she can abort herself, and regretfully this is happening more often that you or I like to admit." By a margin of one vote, the bill passed-a victory that paved the way for the decriminalization of abortion nationwide.
Cook continued to champion gender equality after departing the Assembly in 1974. In 1976 she brought a discrimination suit against the Episcopal Church of the United States, compelling the church to allow the ordination of female priests. That same year, Cook became the first female vice president of Cornell University; she presided over land grant affairs from 1976 to 1980.
Cook's story is incredibly timely and important, Perlgut asserts, because of the current embattlement of Planned Parenthood and of women's rights across the board. "I had an illegal abortion in 1965," she says. "I was lucky. I went to a doctor. It cost a third of my salary . . . I never want any woman to go through an illegal abortion." She says that watching and listening to mostly male politicians attempt to dismantle women's reproductive rights has enraged her. "As a filmmaker, I like to move on to the next project, but thanks to those politicians that would like to curb women's reproductive rights, I'm still focused on making sure this film is seen nationwide and that Connie's work is known and appreciated."