Yard, Molly (1912—)

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Yard, Molly (1912—)

American feminist and political activist. Name variations: Mary Alexander Yard. Born Mary Alexander Yard in 1912 in Chengdu, Szechwan province, China; daughter of James Yard and Mabelle (Hickok) Yard; married Sylvester Garrett (a labor arbitrator), in 1938; children: one daughter; two sons.

Molly Yard's career as an activist in progressive political causes has spanned seven decades, including a term as president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Causes she has espoused range from the labor movement to civil rights to the women's movement. She was born in 1912 in China, the third of four children of politically liberal American Methodist missionaries. Growing up, Yard was moved by the physical suffering and lack of opportunities experienced by Chinese women, and by the suffering caused by the cholera epidemics of the time.

The family moved to the United States in 1925 when her father became a religious director at Northwestern University. He was fired for union organizing, and her mother had to support the family. Yard later recalled her surprise at discovering that like Chinese women, American women were also treated as second-class citizens in their country. All of these early experiences gave Yard a keen sense of social injustice, the importance of standing up for one's principles, and the particular oppressions suffered by women in domestic and public life.

Despite the family's financial problems, which only worsened with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the Yards were determined to help their four daughters receive a higher education. Yard attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where she majored in political science. She quickly became known as a political activist, petitioning for the elimination of the Swarthmore fraternity system because of its anti-Semitism, and supporting trade union organizations. She graduated in 1933, at the height of the Depression, and found work first as the national secretary, then as chair, of the American Student Union (ASU), which organized on behalf of American college students. While ASU chair, Yard met First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt , who became a good friend and remains Yard's inspiration. In 1938, she married Sylvester Garrett, a labor arbitrator, but kept her own name, an unusual mark of independence for a woman at the time. The couple had three children.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Yard worked for the national Democratic Party in Pennsylvania and California. She campaigned for John F. Kennedy in 1960, helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, and, encouraged by the Democrats' success, made an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Pennsylvania state legislature in 1964. Turning then to the civil-rights movement, she worked for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in conjunction with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Yard next joined VISTA as a staff member, but left in disappointment over the discrimination against women and the lack of attention to women's political issues in the predominantly male organization. She also sought to remedy the lack of women delegates in the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee by seeking the help of Pennsylvania NOW.

This led Yard to join NOW, where she would devote most of her energy until the 1990s. Together with NOW president Eleanor Smeal , Yard worked for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, moving to Washington, D.C., to promote the campaign. Undaunted by the ERA's failure in 1982, Yard continued to press for the political advancement of women in other areas, especially abortion rights, as senior staff member on the NOW Political Action Committee from 1978 to 1984, and then as NOW's national political director from 1985 to 1987. In 1987, Yard, at age 75, was elected to a four-year term as president of national NOW, although some NOW members disapproved of

Yard's outspokenness and concentration on high-visibility public demonstrations.

As president, Yard called for the impeachment of President Ronald Reagan and was part of the successful fight against the nomination of conservative Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. She also focused NOW's efforts on campaigning on behalf of Democratic women for state and national offices, organized large-scale demonstrations in Washington for abortion rights in 1989, and tried to re-introduce the ERA into Congress. In 1989, Yard faced more criticism and controversy, even within NOW, when she called for the formation of a third national political party to focus on women's equality. Succeeded as president in 1991 by the more moderate Patricia Ireland , Yard continues to support NOW's various campaigns and projects throughout the country. Molly Yard lives with her husband on a farm in Ligonier, outside Pittsburgh.


Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 2. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1988. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1988.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California