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NOW Chief Molly Yard Was 'Born a Feminist'

July 21, 1987|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — Molly Yard traces the roots of her very American brand of feminism to China, where she was born early in the century to Methodist missionary parents.

She was the family's third daughter, and she tells the story of a Chinese friend who gave her father a beautiful brass bowl. The gift was his way of saying "how sorry he was I wasn't a boy," she recalls.

"In those days in China," Yard said, the birth of a girl was "a tragedy"; girls simply "didn't count." Most were doomed to lives as prostitutes, servants or, "if they were very pretty," concubines. Sometimes, she said, "the girl babies were just thrown away."

Yard lived in China for 13 years--formative, impressionable years that she easily recalled last weekend after she was elected president of the National Organization for Women. To put it simply, she says, "I was born a feminist."

It was with just that sort of finality that Yard on Saturday night soundly defeated an opponent who argued that NOW had lost its energy and was ignoring the needs of women still in traditional family roles. There has been some perception within, she said, that NOW has lost its punch, but "now we're back on track."

As if to prove her point, Yard--the first grandmother to lead the nation's largest feminist organization--was up early the day after her election, ready to "hit the decks running" in support of a possible presidential bid by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.).

Her phone had rung before 8 with a congratulatory call from her 10-year-old granddaughter, Cordelia Garrett-Goodyear, but Yard was already meeting with the Vermont delegation, talking strategy for a new campaign to enact the equal rights amendment.

Later in the morning, Yard, who is 5-foot-2 and wears her gray hair in a tidy bun, was outlining for the media her plans for keeping NOW--with 150,000 members--viable, visible and feisty as it enters its third decade.

NOW's new rallying cry is the "feminization of power," a nationwide effort to encourage women candidates to run for office at every level. And Yard says she is eager to take on the "old boy's network." Women, she said, are "tired of begging for our rights."

On feminist issues, including the ERA, "the vote isn't there because we aren't there," Yard said. (Although women comprise more than half the population, they make up only 15% of state legislatures and 5% of the Congress.) Win or lose in 1988, she said, "we'll have people in the pipeline" for 1990.

Can-Do Attitude

That can-do attitude harkens back to Yard's days as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, after the family returned from China. (Yard follows the advice of a friend, who told her: "Use your own name and never tell your age." But she went to college in the early 1930s, which would place her in her 70s.)

At Swarthmore, she took on women's Greek organizations, including her own Kappa Alpha Theta, for discriminating against Jews. As a result these groups were banned from campus and, Yard said, "nobody has ever been able to bring them back."

At the same time, Sylvester Garrett, who was to become her husband in 1938, resigned from Delta Upsilon, of which he was president, in a similar protest. "This was one of the things we had in common," he recalls.

Garrett remembers those days: "Molly was making speeches even when I met her." Those speeches are delivered in a booming oratory with dramatically rising crescendos.

As chair of the American Student Union, Yard took on the then-governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt. "Our people were coming out of high school and college and there weren't any jobs," Yard said. Criticism published in the group's magazine brought a call from Eleanor Roosevelt--could they "sit down and talk?"

The two women were to become fast friends and Roosevelt would have a "profound" influence on Yard. "We would despair of the whole political system," Yard said. "She would say, 'You have to keep working.' " In time, Yard said, Roosevelt "was almost a second mother to me."

Passionate Involvement

Unable to go to law school because of family finances, Yard became a Depression-era social worker, a job that both disillusioned her and led to her passionate involvement in the trade union movement.

Yard, who calls Pennsylvania home, will remain as NOW's national political director until beginning her three-year, $63,000-a-year term in mid-August. She and Garrett, a labor arbitrator, divide their time between Washington and a 60-acre farm they are "rehabilitating" outside Pittsburgh.

The organization she now leads plans a number of immediate actions:

--"Days of outrage," picketing outside the Vatican embassy in Washington beginning Aug. 26 to protest Pope John Paul II's September tour and to reaffirm women's rights to legal abortion and birth control as well as to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church.

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