PHILADELPHIA–On a downtown sidewalk, an elderly woman, eyes alight with purpose, strode toward Susan Cullman, co-chair of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition, and offered support in a discouraging, ongoing battle.
“I’m pro-life,” said Loreli Kinder of California, a woman who lived through the unforgiving old days when abortion was illegal, “but my daughter is not. Those men (in the party) don’t understand this is an independence movement of women within the Republican Party.”
Cullman, wearing a sleek pants suit and puffing lightly on a cigarette, swept an open arm toward Kinder. “Can I get you to say that before a group?” said Cullman.
And Cullman may do just that. Last week, the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition massed its forces in Philadelphia to change the 2000 platform. The group drew on new resources–actress Dina Merrill, powerful state volunteers and a lawyer who could navigate the shoals of complicated platform rules.
They actually smelled victory for approximately 12 minutes when a committee approved language acknowledging that people in the party have differing views on abortion. But a new vote count swiftly eliminated the statement. Powerful anti-choice delegates insisted on the anti-abortion language, including U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, author of the law restricting Medicaid payments for abortions, and James Bopp, counsel to the National Right-to-Life Committee.
Cullman establishes her movement’s tone of inclusiveness at a time when the Republican Party itself asserts that it wants to become more welcoming of diversity and different opinions. She welcomes everyone, even stepping forward in a convention hallway to introduce herself to a representative of the fervently anti-choice Family Research Council.
When Sen. Arlin Spector of Pennsylvania arrived to a pro-choice party, she greeted him with similar warmth and cordiality and soon he was agreeing to call some of the 107 platform delegates and urge them to support a pro-choice platform language.
Wherever she goes, Cullman, 50, uses the cultivated graciousness of the Republican upper-echelon to galvanize supporters and deflate enemies, all with the goal of safeguarding a woman’s right to choose within the party that officially wants to ban that right.
Yet, for pro-choice Republicans, the hope of inclusion collapsed for this election cycle well before any balloons dropped over the head of anointed Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. On Monday, a stark anti-choice platform was adopted, demanding a constitutional ban on abortion, an anti-abortion litmus test for appointment of judges and the removal of federal funding for anything but abstinence-only education for teens.
But this year, the conversation was different, according to Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood of America. She told 1,200 pro-choice Republicans at a reception that the climate was milder than in the past, fostering a better climate for social change.
Many believe that the change in tone may be due to Cullman’s efforts and add that she may in fact be the one person who could possess the necessary mix of organizational savvy, energy, dedication and charm to change her party’s position on choice.
Cullman began her journey to pro-choice activism 10 years ago, as she realized that women’s rights enshrined in the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade were being torn away by restrictive laws and far right-wing influence on the Republican party. “I took it very personally,” she said.
An alumna of the exclusive Choate Rosemary Hall private school and Wells College, Cullman is a believer in limited government. For 10 years she worked with Call to Action, a group that encourages volunteerism. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Cullman moved to Washington and received a Presidential appointment to a task force on private sector initiatives.
Until a shift in ownership this year, she also served on the board of her family’s General Cigar Company, Inc., a New York enterprise that grows tobacco in Connecticut and makes White Owl Cigars.
These pursuits were enough until, in 1989, Cullman, a tennis and golf enthusiast, became dispirited after a bout with Lyme disease.
Cullman retreated to the Golden Door, an elite California spa. One night she described her concern about abortion rights to a small group of other wealthy women. “They asked, ‘what are you going to do about it?'” recalled Cullman. “I left there a different person.”
And she shifted into a different gear. Cullman soon connected with Mary Denton Crisp, former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, who was organizing pro-choice women. In 1992, Cullman became an alternate delegate to the party convention from Washington, D.C.
“It was a very horrifying scene. Very acrimonious,” says Cullman. “People questioned your Republican credentials based on your position on choice.”
The experience girded Cullman for battles to come. In 1995 she took over when Crisp retired. Last year she joined forces with a New York State pro-choice organization, designating its chief of staff Lynn Grefe as the combined organization’s national director. They opened new chapters in seven states and raised nearly $1 million for an operating budget.
“I’ve been working flat-out to build something that’s going to last,” said Cullman. “My friends are all pro-choice, but many didn’t understand why we have to fight so hard. There is nothing single-issue about abortion and reproductive rights. All aspects of a woman’s life are involved.” She believes women’s economic independence and equality, as well as issues of health, ethics, religion and privacy, are all dependent on the reproductive freedom issue.
Cullman worked closely with pro-choice platform delegates, Candace Straight of New Jersey and Toni Casey of California, and they mounted impressive arguments to eliminate the anti-abortion plank during the platform committee and subcommittee deliberations. They made the argument that on a topic so personal and so divisive, the Republican Party should remain neutral.
“I’m done in, personally, emotionally,” said Cullman when it was over. At the same time, she described plans for more pro-choice candidates, delegates and chapters. “I’m not going to do this forever, and when forever ends, I don’t know. We’ll keep plugging,” she said.
Cynthia L. Cooper is a free-lance writer based in New York. She specializes in reproductive rights issues.