Mary Alexander Yard

views updated

Mary Alexander Yard

Mary Alexander Yard (born c. 1912) was a feminist, a political organizer, and a social activist. She served as president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), 1987-1991.

Mary Alexander Yard, who preferred to be called Molly, was born sometime around 1912 in Chengtu, the capital of Szechwan Province in China. Her father, James Maxon Yard, was a Methodist missionary, and the Yard family lived in China until she was 13 years old. Yard was the third of her parents' children—all girls. When she was born, Chinese friends gave her father an ornate brass bowl as a consolation gift, to show their sympathy that his wife had given birth to yet another daughter. She later said that living in a country where women were so discriminated against made her a feminist almost from birth.

From her parents Yard inherited a sense of the importance of social activism. As a student at Swarthmore College in the early 1930s she protested and demonstrated against the sorority and fraternity system when a Jewish student was refused admission. Her campaign was successful. Fraternities and sororities were abolished at Swarthmore.

She graduated from college in 1933 at the peak of the Great Depression. She worked briefly as a social worker, but found the work unrewarding and frustrating. As a social worker she wasn't expected to change things, and she was too militant for that. She turned to activism in the trade union movement, as well as in early civil rights organizations.

Yard became active in the American Student Union, and served first as the national organizational secretary and then as chairperson. The ASU was critical of Franklin Roosevelt's administration and the New Deal. They felt that the government wasn't doing enough to create jobs, especially for young people. It was through her position in the ASU that Yard met Eleanor Roosevelt. She considered herself Eleanor Roosevelt's spiritual heir and as president of the National Organization for Women, spoke of her often. During her years in the ASU she worked in campaigns against Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) programs and in support of the Spanish Republic during that nation's civil war.

In 1938 Yard married Sylvester Garrett, a labor arbitrator. She kept her own name, but found that other forms of independence were difficult to maintain in the 1940s and 1950s. For example, when she and her husband tried to open a joint bank account using both their names they were told it was impossible unless they stopped claiming to be married and admitted that she was Garrett's mistress instead.

Through the 1940s, while caring for her three young children, Yard was actively involved in Pennsylvania Democratic politics. She and her husband moved briefly to California in 1950, and after her return to Pennsylvania, she served in the administration of Philadelphia Mayor Joseph Clark. When Clark ran for the United States Senate in 1956 she worked in his campaign, and again in 1962. In 1964 she ran for her own seat in the state legislature. Although she won the Democratic primary, she lost in the general election.

Throughout the 1960s Yard was active in a variety of political and social movements. She was much aware of the tensions and the excitement of the times. She was an organizer in western Pennsylvania for the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. In 1964 she led a march on the Pittsburgh Post Office delivering thousands of letters to senators and congressmen urging passage of the Civil Rights Act.

She continued her active involvement with Democratic state politics, but she was growing increasingly frustrated at the exclusion of women from higher circles of decision making. She became active in the local chapter of NOW and met Eleanor Smeal, who was then head of Pennsylvania NOW. After Smeal was elected national president of the National Organization for Women in 1977, Yard followed her to Washington to work on the campaign for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). She led the fight for ratification of the amendment in several key states including Florida, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Virginia.

After the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, Yard continued her involvement in NOW's political campaigns. She served on the Political Action Committee (PAC) staff from 1978 to 1984 and from 1985 to 1987 she was NOW's political director.

She ran for president of national NOW in 1987 against Noreen Connell, the New York State NOW president. Connell felt that the organization should concentrate on strengthening its local chapters, but Yard instead called for large scale national actions to focus attention on the fight for women's rights. Yard won and immediately called for the impeachment of President Reagan and joined in the successful efforts to block the nomination of Robert H. Bork, an abortion rights opponent, to the Supreme Court.

Yard also pledged support for women candidates at every level of government and for a renewed fight for ERA. Under her leadership, NOW and other women's rights organizations organized massive demonstrations in Washington in April and November of 1989.

Yard was a strident leader of NOW and antagonized many members of the organization as well as nonmembers. She was a radical feminist at a time when many NOW members were concerned that women who lead traditional lives felt excluded from the women's movement and from NOW.

In late 1989, when Yard called for the formation of a third party, many leaders of women's organizations opposed her suggestion, feeling that it was much more important to concentrate efforts on supporting women within the two national parties. She was embroiled in continuous controversy from the day of her election, when her refusal to tell her age was the subject of numerous news articles. She was the first grandmother to head a major women's organization, and she was certainly the most radical. Yard was succeeded by Patricia Ireland on December 15, 1991. After serving as NOW's president, Yard continued to actively support the organization with appearances and speeches. In a column appearing in The Advocate (1991), she addressed the issue of lesbian concerns and NOW's agenda. Yard shared her dreams for women throughout the world in a 1994 interview appearing in Anima.

Further Reading

There are many articles about NOW in the years of Molly Yard's presidency, including the National NOW Times, which is available in many libraries. Ellen Hawkes' book Feminism on Trial: The Ginny Foat Case and the Future of the Women's Movement (1986) describes the controversies that NOW faced when Yard was elected. Other books discuss the ERA campaign, in which Yard was deeply involved. A few titles are Why ERA Failed (1986) by Mary Frances Berry and The Equal Rights Amendment: the History and the Movement (1984) by Sharon Whitney. Her article on lesbian concerns and NOW's agenda was published in The Advocate (March 26, 1991). A special interview with Yard appeared in Anima (fall 1994). □

About this article

Mary Alexander Yard

Updated About content Print Article