Yard, Mary Alexander (“Molly”)

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Yard, Mary Alexander (“Molly”)

(b. 6 July 1912 in Shanghai, China; d. 20 September 2005 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), fiery, energetic feminist who from 1987 to 1991 was the leader of the largest feminist association in the United States, the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Yard was born in Shanghai, China, and grew up in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, as the third of four girls. Her father, James Yard, a Methodist missionary, received a brass bowl at her birth as a consolation gift for having yet another girl. In 1925 the family returned to the United States. Yard’s subsequent radicalism reflected the influence of her family. Her father worked as director of religious activities at Northwestern University until his support for civil rights, the peace movement, and the organization of labor led to his dismissal. Yard’s mother, Mabelle (Hickcox) Yard, who had been denied a college education by her father because of her sex, supported the family by running a mail-order Chinese import business. Yard herself worked part-time and with the assistance of scholarships attended Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, where she got her first taste of public protest. After a Jewish student was denied admission to the sorority to which Yard belonged, she was so angered that she worked to abolish the campus’s Greek system, with eventual success. The school remained “Greek free” at the time of Yard’s death seventy years later.

After earning a BA in political science in 1933, Yard abandoned her dream of attending law school because all Pennsylvania state-sponsored scholarships were given only to men. Instead, she became a social worker, but she soon became disillusioned with the social-support system and turned to political activism. After a time, she chaired the American Student Union, a left-wing youth group that opposed the New Deal. Through that union, Yard met and became close friends with the nation’s first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. With her aid, Yard started the Washington Student Service Bureau to encourage student activism. Through the years, she supported labor unions and civil rights causes. When a Republican politician accused her of being a Communist in 1949, Yard sued and won a public apology. A lifelong Democrat, Yard served in the administrations of the Philadelphia mayor Joseph Clark in the 1950s, and in 1956 she helped coordinate Clark’s victorious campaign for the U.S. Senate. In 1964 she won the Democratic nomination for a seat on the Pennsylvania state legislature but lost in the general election. She then became a senior staff member for Volunteers in Service to America, part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.

In 1938 Yard married Sylvester Garrett, a labor arbitrator, keeping her maiden name. They would have three children. When Garrett had to move for professional reasons, Yard accompanied him, though not too happily. In 1950 he temporarily joined the law faculty of Stanford University, in California, and she spent the year sewing and gardening. She moved from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in 1953 and later became a resident of Ligonier, Pennsylvania, where she helped run the family’s sixty-acre farm.

Although she was a feminist, Yard did not become involved with feminist organizations until the 1970s. Angry at the treatment accorded women delegates by the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee, Yard joined NOW. She quickly became a key figure in the organization’s campaign for the ratification of the equal rights amendment (ERA). When the Illinois legislature debated the amendment, Yard walked up and down the statehouse’s marble halls so much that she permanently damaged the nerve endings in her feet. When Illinois declined to support the ERA, Yard insisted on holding a march in 1976 at the Republican National Convention to protest. Within two weeks, she had organized a rally of 12,000 people. In 1982 the ERA failed to gain passage in the last three of the thirty-eight states needed for ratification. Yard never stopped seeking to revive the amendment.

On 18 July 1987 Yard was elected to serve a three-year term as the eighth president of the 150,000-member NOW. Favoring confrontational tactics, she began her administration by organizing to advocate the defeat of the conservative U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. After succeeding in that cause, Yard picketed the Vatican mission in Washington, D.C., to protest Catholic opposition to abortion and birth control. She declared that during her tenure NOW would be active in filing lawsuits, promoting legislation favorable to women, working for the election of women at all levels of office, attempting to revive the ERA, and opposing military spending.

Yard retired from NOW in 1991 because of complications from a stroke, having increased the organization’s membership by 111,000 and its budget by 70 percent. Yard died at Pittsburgh’s Fair Oaks Nursing Home in 2005. Her burial site is unknown. As a memorial, the Molly Yard Equal Representation Fund was established by friends to continue her work to win equal representation for women in Congress and in state legislatures.

A blunt woman with a booming voice who possessed the intensity and energy of a missionary, Yard occupied a difficult position at a difficult time. In the 1980s many Americans viewed the women’s movement as passé, while many feminists sought new blood to give the movement new direction. Yard seemed like a throwback to the militant, unwavering feminism of the late 1960s. Her style worried some women, who believed that publicly confrontational feminists simply antagonized Americans, blocking opportunities for progress through political compromise. Yet she was exactly what the members of NOW sought: a fighter who emphasized the timelessness of feminist causes. Her life offered proof that women’s patterns of activism could not be the same as men’s. As Yard once declared, “All of us who are past thirty-five know how hard it is. [We] have discovered what it is all about, why we need a women’s movement, why we need the ERA.” In a culture that devalued old age, she demonstrated that older women could be role models and leaders.

Obituaries are in the New York Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (both 22 Sept. 2005).

Caryn E. Neumann