Good Works

The Power Duo Behind ‘Power of Choice’

By Heather Wood Rudúlph

Women’s rights activists Nonie Greene (left) and Dagmar Dolby (right) make a statement on behalf of NARAL Pro-Choice America. (Photo by Margo Moritz; hair and makeup by Maya Roget)

NARAL’s biggest West Coast fundraising luncheon for reproductive justice celebrates 25 years. Leaders Dagmar Dolby and Nonie Greene look back on the impact of their work and the urgent need to continue it.

When the leadership of NARAL Pro-Choice America approached Dagmar Dolby in 1993 and asked her to consider hosting a fundraiser for reproductive rights, she admits to feeling confused. The longtime philanthropist felt that focusing on reproductive choice 20 years after Roe v. Wade — and with a pro-choice president in the White House — seemed, well, a bit outdated. “I thought, why? This is no longer a problem,” Dolby recalls, with a knowing chuckle. “Well, I learned differently.”

Kate Michelman, then president of NARAL, persuaded a skeptical Dolby to meet, then opened her eyes by describing the fraught landscape of abortion access in the United States in that era. “Within a couple of minutes I was on the edge of my seat,” Dolby recalls. “She started telling me about all of the things they were expecting to happen, like the rise of the Christian Coalition, and the subversion of hospital boards and library boards and school boards with anti-choice people. I was just outraged. And I thought, yes, I have to do something here.”

At the time, NARAL was still a D.C.-based organization without any offices on the West Coast. So Dolby held information sessions in her own home, inviting friends — first a few dozen, then a dozen more — to educate them on the issue. For three years, all of NARAL’s West Coast advocacy was runout of Dolby’s living room.

“People, of course, were just as astounded as I was,” says Dolby. “At the time, there wasn’t much known about NARAL and the issue wasn’t talked about as much as it is now. Now, of course, we know what’s at stake.”

The first Power of Choice event was held in March 1995 at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture and free to attendees — Dolby’s well-connected friends, and their friends. It was a diversion for a nonprofit political organization dedicated to fundraising.

“I didn’t want to charge for this; I wanted people to learn about the issue first,” explains the widow of Dolby Laboratories founder Ray Dolby and champion of such causes as brain health research, stem cell technologies and early childhood education, to which she’s also devoted her resources and passion. “The folks in Washington said, ‘Well, we don’t go anywhere without raising at least $25,000.’ So I said, ‘OK, fine, I’ll ask 25 of my friends to donate $1,000 and we’ll be fine.’ And guess what: We raised $75,000.”

The annual luncheon, whose quarter-century celebration takes place March 19 at the Fairmont, has raised between $13 and $15 million so far. Each year tickets are offered at various tiers — from corporate-level sponsorship to single tickets, $100 a piece, for individuals under 30, emphasizing the importance of including all generations in this fight.

Nonie Greene, who sits on NARAL’s board of directors, says her own “get off the couch” moment came when she watched the Anita Hill hearings while holding her young daughter on her lap. The urge to devote her life to women’s rights was insatiable. Looking for opportunities todo more, a friend suggested she get in touch with Dolby.

I was invited to a living room event, walked in, and the rest is history,” she recalls. The two formed a fast friendship and partnership, and Dolby asked Greene to chair the Power of Choice Leadership Council. “I found Dagmar to be an incredible leader,” Greene says. “The art of volunteerism, the way she invited people in and was open. She took this issue so seriously, but she doesn’t take herself so seriously. I was basically like, ‘You had me at hello.’”

In 2001, the event grew from a few hundred to more than 1,000 after former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright confirmed her participation. “We had people in a second room with a big screen because I wasn’t going to turn one person away,” Dolby says. Notable speakers over the years have included Stacey Abrams, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein and NARAL President Ilyse Hogue. Attendance waned during the Obama administration and spiked again in 2016. Greene says that no matter who is elected this year, the fight must continue. “We just have to figure out how to get people’s attention year after year,” says Greene, who still writes personal invitations and thank-you cards to attendees and sponsors. “I’ve been to places all over the country and it still makes me so angry that a woman living in Wyoming has to drive to Montana to access care that should be readily available to her. I will never feel free in this country until all women have access to reproductive freedom.”

January marked the 47th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and abortion seems to be more at risk than ever. It’s essentially illegal — or impossible to obtain in certain circumstances — in as many as 45 states, and many experts and historians are very publicly warning that the end of Roe is imminent. And yet, Dolby and Greene find hope even in a climate like this.

“It is a scary time. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t,” Greene says. “But we can also be on the offensive. Seven out of ten people believe Roe should be upheld. We had the 2018 elections,” which brought an over-whelmingly Democratic and pro-choice contingent to Congress. She continues, “We have states that have codified Roe in their own constitutions. There is a dark national landscape, and the makeup of the Supreme Court is concerning. But when we get in a room of 700 or 800 people at our event, there is a physical transformation. People are serious about this issue and care a lot. This is something we have to fight for every year. And we will.”

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