Molly Yard, 93, a former president of the National Organization for Women who fought for the Equal Rights Amendment, legal access to contraception and abortions and revitalization of the feminist movement, died Sept. 21 at Fair Oaks Nursing Home in Pittsburgh, where she lived.
She ran NOW from 1987 to 1991 after a lifetime of activism in Democratic politics and on civil rights issues. Unstoppable until she had a stroke in 1991, she recovered enough to work through the 1990s with the Feminist Majority Foundation on its task force on women and girls in sports.
Ms. Yard was among the leaders of the opposition in 1987 to Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court. She helped identify the existence of a gender gap in voting patterns and assisted in reviving Title IX's prohibition against gender discrimination in federally funded sports. She led the campaign to win approval for the import of RU-486, or mifepristone, the French "abortion pill." Under her leadership, NOW's membership grew from 140,000 to 250,000, and the annual budget increased 70 percent to more than $10 million.
Ms. Yard, a resolute and uncompromising liberal who staged her first political campaign in 1931, often was attacked by political opponents who called her strident, extremist and confrontational. She was barred from speaking about abortion at Catholic University in the late 1980s. She was a well-known name at a time when the nation was shifting away from the liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s and toward a much more conservative political atmosphere.
"People get all mixed up about labels," Ms. Yard told The Washington Post in 1987. "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."
She was born in Shanghai, where her father was a Methodist missionary, and she kept a brass washbasin that city leaders gave her father as a consolation for having a daughter.
The family returned to the United States in 1925, and Ms. Yard, an athletic 13-year-old, was disappointed to discover there were few chances to participate in competitive sports. She graduated from Swarthmore College in 1933 after leading a campaign to abolish the sorority system, which discriminated against Jews.
The college yearbook noted: "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."
She couldn't afford law school, so she became a social worker, a labor organizer and an activist, helping found the socialistic American Student Union. Befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt, Ms. Yard credited her with reinforcing her determined optimism and unwillingness to accept a political loss as permanent.
Ms. Yard was married to labor arbitrator Sylvester Garrett and kept her own name, but she followed him to California when he joined the Stanford University law faculty. There, she worked on the campaign of Helen Gahagan Douglas, who ran against Richard M. Nixon for the U.S. Senate. The family moved to Pennsylvania shortly thereafter, and Ms. Yard became involved in state Democratic politics. On the national level, she worked for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and joined the 1963 civil rights March on Washington. She ran for public office once, winning a 1964 Democratic nomination for a state senate seat, but she lost in the general election. She worked for George McGovern in 1972.
She became involved in NOW in 1974 and joined the national staff in 1978.
Kim Gandy, the organization's current president, credited Ms. Yard with persuading political activists working on the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1991 to include jury trials and monetary damages for those who sue for sexual harassment and discrimination.
"She was so well known in the civil rights community and so well respected that it made a huge difference," Gandy said. "She had lived through what compromises bring you, and she was very determined that women's lives were not to be compromised."
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and a former president of NOW, said Ms. Yard was the person most responsible for making sure women were well represented among Democratic Party convention delegates.
"She could make more phone calls in a day than any human being I ever worked with," Smeal said. "She always could outwork any young person. She pushed like there was no tomorrow."
Ms. Yard persuaded her brother-in-law, pollster Lou Harris, to add a breakdown in his polls showing the gender differences among voters for the 1980 presidential election -- the first hard evidence of a gender gap in national political life.
Smeal said that when she once called for a fundraising campaign to continue the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, she was not even away from the microphone before Ms. Yard appeared, grabbed the microphone and pledged to match any donations made that moment. She raised $1 million in five months.
With a booming voice, a to-the-ramparts style and a willingness to take positions considered politically extreme, she attracted more than the normal share of attacks. "The hardline Yard often sounds like an IWW organizer at a lumberjacks' rally," Newsweek once said, referring to the militant Industrial Workers of the World.
A 1989 NOW resolution calling for a third political party and for a "bill of rights for the 21st century" that would guarantee women equality, abortion rights, the right to sexual preference and a number of environmental and economic rights prompted derision by the establishment press, including an opinion column by a Washington Post deputy editor who wrote, "Somebody has to say it: Molly Yard, shut up. Please."
The irony, Smeal said, is that Ms. Yard was against forming a women's party, but she felt she had to represent members' views.
Garrett, her husband of 57 years, died in 1996. A daughter, Joan Hickock Garrett-Goodyear, died in 1992.
Survivors include two sons, James Garrett of Pittsburgh and John Garrett of Rochester, N.Y.; and five grandchildren.