The Nurturing Network
Mary Cunningham gained national media attention through much of her adult life; first through her fast corporate rise and later as the founder of Nurturing Network, an alternative for women considering abortion. Cunningham has a public image as both a spiritual motivator and a manipulative controller, and has long been associated with her husband's volatile business dealings.
Mary Cunningham claimed that she realized God was her father on the day of her First Communion. Her birth father was a drinker who abandoned the family when she was five years old. She blamed the incident on herself and resolved to be good for the rest of her life. After her father left the family, Mary's mother took refuge with a relative who was a priest, Father Bill Nolan, who helped raise Mary and her siblings. Cunningham grew up grounded in the Catholic tradition. Her religious realization on the day of her First Communion would shape what she claimed were her values, and would lead her to found a resource for women considering abortion. A bright woman, she went on to college at Wellesley to major in philosophy and logic. She graduated with high honors. Later she attended Harvard.
Cunningham met her future husband, William Agee, for the first time when she was 27, and she had just graduated from Harvard with an MBA. Agee, as CEO of Bendix, was recruiting for the company. He hired her on as an executive assistant. It was the start of a fast career rise and of later tumult in both their lives. One of the things that they shared in common was the desire to start a family.
Amidst personal and professional turbulence in the couple's life, Cunningham suffered a life changing loss that was, in her opinion, even worse than her father's abandonment. In 1984 she had a miscarriage in the second trimester of pregnancy. The incident led her to found the Nurturing Network, a resource for women considering abortion.
After Cunningham finished college and was recruited by Agee in 1979 to work for Bendix, her career skyrocketed. After a year at the company, Agee promoted her to vice president of corporate communications. Three months later she was promoted to vice president for strategic planning. By 1980, resentment was building in the company and rumors flew that the two were romantically involved. The press capitalized on the scandal, reporting on every new turn of events. Cunningham left the company at the height of the scandal, although later she and Agee were blamed for strategically misdirecting the company in a failed attempt to become more high tech. Shortly after, Bendix was sold to Allied-Signal where Agee worked briefly. When Agee left the company both he and Cunningham disappeared from the public eye. Six months after leaving Bendix, Cunningham obtained a position with a six figure salary at Seagrams.
In 1984 Cunningham published Powerplay, a bestselling book about her experiences at Bendix. Though Cunningham and Agee went on to raise two children, live at Cape Cod, and run a small firm, they resurfaced in the public eye when Agee became CEO of Morrison Knudsen Company in Boise, Idaho. Ultimately the move was a disaster for the company and for Cunningham and Agee personally. Boise's residents did not receive the couple kindly, though Agee had grown up near the town. Much of the resentment stemmed from the fact that Agee's first wife was well liked in the cosmopolitan, but clannish town, and people objected that Agee had annulled his marriage to her in order to wed Cunningham.
Cunningham and Agee were uncomfortable in the required social roles of upper crust Boise society and lived privately when they could. Their reticence led many to conclude that they were not interested in interacting with anyone else. By this time, Cunningham had founded a charity organization for women considering abortion called The Nurturing Network and was also running the Morrison Knudsen Foundation. Her work left her with little energy for socializing. At one point, she said, "Did I, at the end of the day, enjoy putting on a sparkly dress and greeting employees? No, I'm tired at the end of the day. I'm not the kind of person with painted nails." Meanwhile, unproven rumors surfaced around town about Cunningham, such as one that claimed the couple donated a $100,000 cross to the local Catholic Church and paid for it out of Morrison Knudsen funds. Cunningham was perceived as a person who controlled her husband and was involved in the company, even though the couple made efforts to appear otherwise.
The Nurturing Network was formed after Cunningham miscarried. At this time in her life, she had time to reflect upon the plight of women who lost children in other circumstances, such as abortion. She speculated that many of these women did not have the loving support that she had received. With the beginnings of an idea in her head, she contacted 10 abortion clinics in the United States and asked them to give her phone number to clients who might be willing to discuss their abortion experiences.
The women who interviewed with Cunningham claimed that they would have chosen an alternative to abortion if such an alternative had existed for them. In order for some of these women to consider carrying their pregnancies to term, they needed assistance like: leave of absence from jobs, free medical care, adoption resources, counseling, or a safe home.
Motivated by this information and also with $300,000 from the sale of a vacation home, Cunningham founded the Nurturing Network in 1986. The organization provided resources and help for women considering terminating pregnancies. By 1994, the Network claimed to have served 4,500 clients. Clients seeking help from the network called a toll free number and filled out questionnaires about themselves, their goals, and what difficulties they would encounter if they carried their pregnancy to term.
By 1994, The Network claimed that 18,000 potential clients had contacted them for assistance. The organization set up creative collaborations with other groups to provide resources for its clients. Clients who needed a place to stay were linked with one of 700 Nurturing Homes. A participating group of doctors provided free or low cost medical care. Interested colleges and employers made arrangements to accept clients for short term study programs or jobs. In a 1993 48 Hours interview at Nurturing Network, one client expressed gratitude for the services and claimed that she would have killed herself rather than have an abortion.
Cunningham remained a central force in the Nurturing Network. She personally counseled clients and urged them to face what might be tough in the short term. In the long term, she advised, the pregnant client would reach fulfillment and personal growth in choosing to bring their child into the world. Cunningham claims that abortion is really the ultimate form of violence, disguised in a slogan called freedom. On the other hand, employees told of a sort of unscrupulousness that pervaded the Network offices. Security devices were largely in effect. Receptionists were instructed to say that Cunningham was in meetings, even when she was across the country. A former client counselor claimed that the number of clients that received assistance was greatly exaggerated and that many clients were, in fact, referred to other agencies.
Cunningham and her husband continued to face personal obstacles. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1991 but refused chemotherapy, preferring to pray instead. The cancerous lumps on her neck disappeared soon after. During this time, anonymous Morrison Knudsen employees accused the couple of using company money to live lavishly. The couple's children were harassed at school. Their Boise home was broken into and they hired bodyguards. After Agee underwent cancer surgery in 1992, a black rose was delivered to his office when he returned to work. It ended up being the final straw for the couple, who packed up and moved to California where, Agee continued to run his business, however, the company lost money in 1992 ($7 million) and several lucrative project possibilities. When some suspected that Agee kept the Board of Directors from knowing the true condition of the company, company executives wrote a letter to the Board, describing their immense dissatisfaction with how Agee was running the company. The letter led to an investigation and later, the Board fired Agee, amidst losses of $310 million in 1994. At this point, Cunningham resigned as director of the company's non profit foundation.
Cunningham continued her work with Nurturing Network, and managed to successfully circumvent the volatile politics that accompanied abortion in the United States. The Network employed some people with prochoice views. Generally, 15 percent of Network clientele gave up their newborns for adoption while the remaining 85 percent kept them. Controversy remained regarding connections between Morrison Knudsen and Nurturing Network—questions were posed about whether the Network was relying on financial and staff resources from Morrison Knudsen.
Chronology: Mary Cunningham
1953: Graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with Phi Beta Kappa key.
1979: Met William Agee, future husband who would partially shape her career.
1983: Suffered miscarriage; began conceptualizing Nurturing Network.
1984: Published New York Times Bestseller Powerplay.
1985: Founded the Nurturing Network.
1991: Diagnosed with cancer, later recovered.
1993: Nurturing Network featured on 48 Hours.
1994: Resigned as director of Morrison-Knudsen Foundation.
Social and Economic Impact
Cunningham's life in the public eye—since meeting Agee for the first time and working as his assistant at Bendix—was very controversial. Opinions were divided on the essence of her true nature. Even her work with Nurturing Network was suspect. After Agee's dismissal from Morrison Knudsen, a legal investigation was initiated that questioned the connections between the company and Nurturing Network. Many board members for the company, for example, had wives who served on the Board of Nurturing Network—creating concerns about conflicts of interest. As a corporate expert cited in the New York Times "once so many of the directors and their wives had joined with the Agees in a moral crusade—how likely was it that they would challenge Mr. Agee in the boardroom?" Cunningham and Agee were also suspected of funneling Morrison-Knudsen Funds into other Catholic charities.
Because Cunningham and Agee were so close personally and publicly, decisions they made together impacted them both and particularly shaped public opinion of Cunningham. For example, although the Agees went to great lengths to prove that Mary did not have a hand in the Morrison-Knudsen business, many still believed that a $7,000 portrait of the Agees that hung on company walls was an example of Mary's influence.
Cunningham was seen by some of her peers at Nurturing Network as a deeply spiritual person with a message that the world needs to hear. One person described interacting with Cunningham as an experience that made one feel special and singled out, the total focus of Cunningham's attention. On the other hand, Network employees who were first impressed by her charisma, later hinted of a manipulative personality. According to these employees, she had a secretive and paranoid management style. Her foes from Morrison Knudsen saw her spirituality as self serving and said she used it as a tool. Her life grabbed the attention of the national media and even attracted allies like Gloria Steinem of the National Organization for Women, who protested when Bendix ousted Cunningham. Depending on the interpretation, Cunningham was seen as a champion of unborn rights, a successful corporate icon, or a powerful partner in her husband's business.
Sources of Information
Berman, Laura. "The Gospel According to Mary." Working Woman, August 1995.
Hopkins, Jim. "The Agees: Personalities Key to Couple's Stunning Reversal of Fortune." Gannett News Service, 11 June 1995.
Hopkins, Jim. "Agees Surrounded Selves With High-Tech Security." Gannett News Service, 20 February 1995.
O'Reilly, Brian. "Agee in Exile." Fortune, 29 May 1995.
Vaughn, Ellen Santilli. "For Women, Against Abortion." Christianity Today, 7 March 1994.