When Nancy Reagan held a luncheon to celebrate the centennial of Eleanor Roosevelt's birth, Molly Yard knew what she had to do. The longtime Democratic activist and Roosevelt friend put on her Equal Rights Amendment T-shirt, picked up a "Retire Ronald Reagan" banner and ended up joining a small group in front of the White House, voicing her outrage at a luncheon she considered "an affront" to Roosevelt's memory.

That's Yard. Nothing subtle about her, just an abiding attachment to unreconstructed liberalism and, even in her seventies, tireless energy in its defense. Though her blunt, to-the-ramparts style seems a long way from the drawing-room uprightness of the first lady she so admired as a young woman, "I feel I am carrying on her work," says Yard.

For fully half a century, the petite, athletically stocky Yard, with her signature gray bun and her gunfire, clarion voice, has been a gadfly of the Democratic left. From the 1930s, when she had sororities banished from Swarthmore College for discriminating against Jews, to the 1987 fight against the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, Yard has prodded and organized and championed and led.

Now, as the new president of the National Organization for Women, she faces a complicated struggle: Some people believe the women's movement is passe', others want dramatic changes in its feminist agenda, and still others argue that the entire Democratic coalition that has traditionally embodied American liberalism needs both new blood and new direction. Yard, however, remains undismayed. For her, the new agenda is the old agenda.

"People get all mixed up about labels," she says. "Some of our friends on the right tried to make 'liberal' a dirty word." But "some things never change. The belief in social justice is a continuing concern. It comes right out of the Judeo-Christian ethic. That does not change ..."

If Yard is not exactly a contemporary of the Perrier generation, her militant, unwavering feminism and her institutional memory are considered major assets by many NOW-minded women. So is her age, even if she won't tell you exactly what it is.

"She provides a continuity that is helpful," says author and feminist Gloria Steinem. "Her age is important because there is an idea that a women's pattern of activism is the same as men's ... {it} takes place on the campus." Adds political consultant Ann Lewis: "I'm tired of the rap that we are middle-class and middle-age. To have her as the image and voice of NOW in 1987 sends a message about older women as role models and leaders."

Yard fuzzes her age, she says, not out of coyness but as a sort of mini-statement about timeless causes. She is, she says with a slight smile dancing around her small, pursed mouth, "somebody trying to make change." Sylvester Garrett, her husband of nearly 50 years, elaborates: "There is a kind of missionary zeal which we need in some people because they are the people who make people move." During the ERA campaign in Illinois, she walked up and down the marble halls so much that she permanently injured the nerve endings in her feet. When the ERA drive lost in Illinois, it was Yard who insisted on having a march at the Republican national convention. Within two weeks she organized a rally of 12,000 people.

Now her charge is mammoth, going beyond marches to mind-sets. Many women's groups are reshaping their political agendas and recharging their spirits after the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment and the loss of vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro.

Few dispute that the modern era of organized activism and feminist networking have ushered in a period of unparalleled progress for women. Thousands of women have been elected to public office, including three governors and two U.S. senators. The Supreme Court, with its first woman justice, has ruled that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination, and there are national laws on bread-and-butter issues such as child support payments and pension rights.

But while polls report strong support for women's rights, a slight majority of women consider themselves feminists and the overwhelming majority of American women feel the women's movement has improved their lives, some are questioning its personal impact.

Many women who fought for an equal share of job opportunities and salaries are now talking about guilt, exhaustion and frustration at their burdens and feel the women's movement has abandoned their "third stage" needs.

Some women are also worried that the most public feminists, and that would include Molly Yard, are too confrontational or negative and may turn people off or block opportunities for progress through political compromise.

"Well, welcome to the world of women," Yard says unrepentantly. "All of us who are past 35 know how hard it is. They have discovered what it is all about, why we need a women's movement, why we need the ERA. It is a hell of a lot of work ...

Yard herself pulled up stakes when her husband, a well-known labor arbitrator, had to move. She raised three children, maintained a 60-acre farm in Ligonier, Pa., and commuted when her causes and jobs took her away from her home.

"I am sure that individuals every once in awhile go through burnout and my advice is to take a sabbatical. I have done that myself. I think everybody needs a time to think."

That impatience extends to the vocal critics who are saying the women's struggle is over and Yard acknowledges that NOW has to continue to convert and nurture while simultaneously maintaining its visibility on the political landscape. And that is Yard's first order of business. For the 1988 presidential race she has vowed a "wait and see" stance but plans to work hard toward putting a woman like Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) in the White House. Angered at the Catholic Church's ban on abortion and birth control and its stands on homosexuality and women's ordination, NOW joined a coalition of secular and religious feminist groups to protest the pope's recent visit to the United States. Yard was arrested outside the Vatican Embassy here two weeks ago during a nonviolent demonstration.

Also, Yard and NOW are playing a key role in the campaign to block Bork's confirmation. Yard led a rally outside the Capitol on the opening day of the hearings and is scheduled to testify.

"You have to respond to what is current," Yard says. "Your long-range goal might be to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed, and to do that to get many more women elected to public office. But when a Bork comes along you have to respond. When the pope comes along all of us felt you had to respond to that."

Nonpartisan in her outrage, Yard once exploded at then-vice president Walter Mondale. "She does not speak in understatements," recalls Joseph Rauh, another of the old-line liberals who, with Yard, was a founder of Americans for Democratic Action. "The vice president had been a vice president of ADA, he had been an ally. Molly complained that the Carter people hadn't cut the military budget as promised ... The vice president's position was pretty hard to swallow. She blew up and expressed our anger so well. Then everybody chimed in after her. She was feisty and wonderful."

In meetings with the candidates during the 1984 presidential campaign, Eleanor Farrar, vice president of the Joint Center for Political Studies, recalls, "She didn't let people get away with smooth answers. What she kept pushing is, 'Never mind how many women you have in these supposedly influential positions, who is in the inner circle? The fact that you have a deputy field director in Tennessee doesn't impress us.' It is a question I have learned to ask."

The Yard directness has been an effective tool for her allies. "When we lobby, she holds to a high and tough standard," says Patricia Reuss, legislative director for the Women's Equity Action League. Occasionally on the second round of lobbying a member of Congress would start to retreat, recounts Reuss. "They would say, 'Isn't there just some little way we could compromise?' I would say no, I would be unwilling. Then we would say, 'Look, you either deal with me or you have to answer to Molly.' They always relent."

Yard says she can practice flexibility when it's needed. On a stalled bill to require gender equity in insurance, Yard recalls, "The insurance industry said we will do it in the future, and the NOW position is, what is happening to the women who are retiring now, or last year; we want it to be retroactive ... Sometimes it is very useful for the organization to hold up the ideal. It gives us a standard to work against ...

"You never know at what point the opposition is going to give. You have to keep pushing as hard as you can all the time, even though you feel your cause is lost. At some point, if you have enough strength on your side, the opposition gives. People say to me, 'Why are you optimistic about being able to do these things?' And my experience has been if you keep pushing hard you eventually make a breakthrough."

This point of view is so ingrained, and apparently so often preached, that her predecessor at NOW, Eleanor Smeal, repeats the Yard maxim almost verbatim. "She says, 'If we win, they call us geniuses; if we lose, they will call us bums, so let's do what we think is right."

Yard's drive regularly leaves her younger colleagues gasping. She walks up the Metro escalators; she skis in New Mexico and climbs mountains in New Hampshire with her four grandchildren. She ran the first and last mile of the NOW-sponsored "Torch Run for Equality" in late July. Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) was in the grandstand when the runners arrived. "There was Molly in running shorts, leading the group of runners, some of them Olympic runners, holding a great torch," Edwards says.

The strongest note of personal disappointment she expressed as she talked about her life was the day foul weather prevented her from climbing Omei-son, one of China's four "holy mountains," in 1985.

"Our guide was not the slightest bit interested in this project and we said, 'You just sit here in the temple and drink tea and we will go on.' We started up the mountain and it is absolutely beautiful and, in spite of the rain, it was still full of people climbing with umbrellas. We went partway up; it was too wet." She allows a sigh to escape.

When Yard talks about what is "right," the battles, the rallies, the marches all whip by on the express train of her memory. When she talks about China, she slows down, searching for the right phrase to explain how the sounds and sights of her birthplace added to her sense of justice.

Yard was born in Shanghai and grew up in Chengtu, the capital of Sichuan province. Her father was a missionary responsible for a wide territory under the Methodist Church. She was the third of four girls and can still kindle her own rage describing how he was given a brass bowl at her birth -- as a consolation prize for having "just another daughter."

One of the strongest memories of her childhood is the vision of death in the streets from cholera. "You would literally see people sit down on the road and die," she says. "In times of epidemic, we could not eat any fresh fruit or vegetables; everything had to be cooked."

And the ritual of binding and unbinding feet produced a sound that can't be erased. "We heard these awful, awful cries. I can still hear them. I asked my father what was going on and he said it was a young girl whose feet are bound. They used to unbind them at night in order for the blood to circulate."

Expecting, after her years in China, to find more equality in America, she was unprepared for the casual sexism she discovered when she moved to the States at age 13.

"The girls got to use the gym when the boys were finished, and everything in the way of athletic support and equipment was always less for girls," she says. Later, she had to put some of her ambitions aside. "If I wanted to go to law school, which I thought of doing, there was no way I could go in Pennsylvania. All state scholarships were given only to men. Now that's all changed."

Commitment was also taught by her father. On a speaking tour back in the States, he urged that the missions be turned over to the Chinese. "He stepped on 12 million toes because every university in China started by the missions had a white president. All these people were outraged because it was their jobs and my father was literally booted out," says Yard.

After that incident, her father worked as director of religious activities for Northwestern University. His work in race relations, the peace movement and labor organizing led to his firing, a move later declared improper by an educational group. It was Yard's mother who supported the family during those lean Depression years by importing goods from China and running a mail-order business.

"She had wanted to go to college. Her father, who had plenty of money, said college was not for girls. He sent his three sons but not his three daughters," recalls Yard. Her mother was determined to educate her children. "She put us all through college on that. We were all on scholarships and had jobs but there was never enough to pay the bills. It was my mother who kept us going."

As Yard was learning personal survival and domestic role-sharing, she had a direct lesson in politics at Swarthmore. After Yard organized a vote to ban the sororities, the alumni petitioned the board of regents to reverse the students' decision. The college president declared the vote would be taken again in a year.

"I was furious. I thought we had been totally sold down the river," recalls Yard. "I rushed across campus. I can still feel myself running to the president's house and banging on his door. I started sputtering at him. And he said, 'What is the matter, Molly, are you afraid to take a vote one year from now?' " After a year of other groups running social activities, the motion was again passed.

As a result, her reputation as a firebrand was secure. In her junior year, the college yearbook said of her: "Molly ... with the help of smiling blue eyes ... manages to escape even the slightest hint of disheveled radicalism. But by temperament she is an authentic agitator. No abuse is too well-established, no precedent too accepted, no majority too overwhelming to silence her."

"If you are concerned about social justice, there are two ways to go. To be an advocate and push as hard as you can to push the powers that be, and to be on the inside, and they are both honorable roles," says Yard.

First her path was social work. Then organizing students, labor unions and political campaigns. She worked with the late biographer Joseph Lash and columnists Murray Kempton and James Wechsler in the American Student Union. Their early criticism of the New Deal drew the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who befriended Yard.

"She was the one who in my youth, anytime you were defeated, down in the dumps, she could say, 'Don't worry, you can't always win; keep at what you believe in, and you will see that there are many times in life when you do win,' " says Yard, who started the Washington Student Service Bureau with Roosevelt's help. Clearly Yard embraced that optimism. Louis Harris, the pollster and husband of Yard's younger sister, met Molly Yard in the summer of 1941. "We spent a summer at Mrs. Roosevelt's home with 30 other students. In looks, in her force or vigor or her point of view, she hasn't changed much. She will not put up with 'can't.' "

One fight Yard won was clearing her name after a Republican politician in Philadelphia accused her in 1949 of being a communist. In response to the charge, Eleanor Roosevelt said, "This is a grave injustice to a fine American and completely the reverse of the truth ... as a sincere believer in and a fighter for democracy, she was never content to sit on the sidelines but met and fought the communists in liberal organizations where they were attempting to infiltrate and take over." Yard successfully sued the local Republicans and received $1,500 and a front-page apology in the local papers.

In the early 1950s, Yard took a "domestic" break while her husband was on the law faculty at Stanford University. She describes a year of sewing, gardening and getting her children adjusted to the cross-country move. "I did a lot of loafing. I used to swim almost every day and have a wonderful orange for lunch," says Yard. She also put her "dream" of running for Congress on the back burner. "That's what I always wanted to be. I had carefully planned, I had established myself well within the Democratic Party," she says. Later, she ran for the Pennsylvania state legislature and lost, and the circumstances were never quite right for her to try for Congress.

In 1950, she emerged from her homemaking break to work in the campaign of Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was running against Richard Nixon for the U.S. Senate. "That was not something I was going to stay out of," she says flatly. "I was a total admirer of hers and my undying hatred of Richard Nixon came from that campaign." But she does concede he made history by reopening relations with China.

Though a feminist, Yard wasn't directly involved in women's groups, and it was her frustration with the way the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee treated women delegates in the early 1970s that prompted her to eventually become active in NOW. She had worked in "individual ways," but felt "there was nothing you could grab on to that was an agent for change. When NOW came along {in 1966} I was just delighted."

Just like her father before her, Yard can take to the stump. At the NOW convention in 1980, the board of directors decided to try to raise $1 million a month for the last push for ERA ratification. Eleanor Smeal was making the pitch from the podium. "All of a sudden I saw Molly organizing the floor to collect the money. She was running through the audience. Then I saw her running on stage, coming to the platform. I thought, this is not in the script. Then she grabs the mike, using the most impassioned voice, saying she was pledging her house to match anything anybody gave. It was the most frenzied collection; people gave their jewelry. Later I walked through the audience, almost apologetic. And a woman told me it was the first time she had written a check that size without her husband's approval. Molly is very spontaneous, intense and dedicated."

Yard did raise $1 million in five months.

Yard is prepared to start the long haul of ERA all over again, saying many of the priorities of the women's movement have to be solved through the legal process. In 1982 the constitutional amendment failed to win the last three of 38 states it needed for ratification.

She is not battle-weary but patiently waits for the next challenge, the next glimmer of opportunity. A few days before the ERA ratification deadline expired, a group of supporters met on Capitol Hill to discuss the last-minute strategy. Yard was dismayed, she recalls, to discover most of them were talking about the ERA as if the battle were over. "It was preposterous. What they were talking about was what they would do after the defeat and we still had a month to go," says Yard. Close to tears, she continued to talk about the goal, her dream. And what keeps her vision clear is a lesson she learned from Eleanor Roosevelt and the experience of time.

"We intend to move in one direction, and then go in extremes. Then the center pulls back. If you look at history, there is a lot of truth in that. At some point you may come up against a stone wall and everything goes against you. It doesn't mean you're wrong or you can't do it." Eventually, she says, "you're going to win."