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Molly Yard, 93; Led Fight for Women's Rights

September 22, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Molly Yard, who became president of the National Organization for Women when she was 75 and yet was credited with making the women's movement relevant to a new generation, has died. She was 93.

Yard died Wednesday at the Fair Oaks Nursing Home in her longtime home of Pittsburgh, her family announced.

"She was a brilliant strategist and tireless organizer for campaigns for social justice who could always rally the troops," Eleanor Smeal, a close friend who preceded Yard as president of NOW, said in a statement released by the Feminist Majority Foundation, where Yard had worked after leaving NOW.

When Yard became NOW's president in 1987, The Times said she "had a gift for rafter-rattling oratory," and under her leadership, the organization became more visible. Membership grew to 250,000 members, and the annual budget went up 70% to more than $10 million a year.

She led NOW during the bitter fight that helped defeat the nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987, arguing that he might provide the fifth vote that would override the high court's landmark 1973 ruling legalizing abortion.

Yard campaigned for abortion rights and worked to elect more women to political office. Until a major stroke in 1991 cut short her NOW presidency, she talked about creating a third major political party that would represent women and minorities.

In the early 1980s, she helped persuade her brother-in-law, pollster Lou Harris, to separate out polls by gender, which was unusual at that time.

Subsequent Harris polls on President Reagan that were broken out by gender "made it clear that the gender gap was real," according to the foundation.

Yard always claimed she was "born a feminist," a statement that alluded to her birth in Shanghai, the third of four daughters of Methodist missionaries.

A Chinese family friend gave her father a beautiful brass bowl to ease the "tragedy" of having yet another child who "didn't count" in a culture that tossed girls away, she told The Times in 1987.

Her mother's import business paid for all four daughters to attend Swarthmore College, and Yard graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1933.

As an undergraduate, she noticed that sororities did not allow Jews to pledge and successfully campaigned to abolish the sorority system on the campus.

One of her first jobs after college was as an assistant to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she called a "profound" influence.

Later, Yard became a civil rights activist, worked on presidential campaigns and joined NOW in 1974.

Yard married labor attorney Sylvester Garrett in 1938. She said her first conscious feminist act occurred when she told her husband that she was not going to change her name.

They kept a town house in Washington, D.C., and the feminist's heirloom -- the brass bowl -- at their 60-acre farm near Pittsburgh.

Yard's husband and daughter preceded her in death. She is survived by two sons and five grandchildren.

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