Septuagenarian Molly Yard May Not Be Unsinkable, but She's Just the Thing for Now

updated 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The Washington offices of the National Organization for Women have been a blur of purposeful activity in recent weeks; the 150,000-member organization is cranked up to full battle force by the Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork. In NOW's downtown headquarters, staff and volunteers have been putting in hectic, 14-hour days, making calls, stuffing envelopes and fielding inquiries about the controversial Reagan nominee. There was a brief lull in the action last week, though, when the women gathered around a television to watch Rep. Patricia Schroeder's press conference. This summer the NOW faithful had urged her to run for President. Now they watched as—with tears in her eyes—Schroeder announced that she would not be a candidate.

The disappointment in the room was palpable. But Molly Yard, NOW's new president, seemed to take the setback in stride. "Well, it will happen in '92," she says. Five decades of political activism have taught Yard to be patient but haven't eroded her optimism. "You have to watch change over a long period," she says. And few women have seen as much of it as Yard, who can remember when women weren't welcome at presidential conventions as delegates, let alone as candidates.

Yard brings to the NOW presidency both a historical perspective and a damn-the-torpedoes style. She even managed to cause a tiny tempest when she took the job in August by refusing to divulge her age—a matter of principle, she insists, not coyness. "Anyone can tell I'm not young," says Yard, who is over 70. But "all that is relevant is whether I have the experience, knowledge and guts to do the job."

On those counts she seems amply qualified. Yard took up her first cause as a sophomore at Swarthmore, when she started a successful campaign to ban fraternities that blackballed Jews. She says it was her parents, both Methodist missionaries, who taught her, "You never just throw up your hands and say, 'What can I do? I'm just one soul.' " Twice while she was growing up her father took stands for the downtrodden that cost him his job. Molly, who was born in China, the third child of four daughters, was a fighter—and a feminist—as far back as she can remember. On the sideboard at her 60-acre farm in Ligonier, Pa., is the brass washbasin that friends in China gave her father as consolation for siring yet another female.

When Yard married Sylvester Garrett, a Swarthmore classmate, in 1938, she kept her own name. Wherever Garrett moved the family to pursue his formidable career as a labor relations lawyer, Yard found a cause. In Washington she chaired the American Student Union, which brought her to the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt. The two women formed a lasting friendship. ("She was a warm, warm person," says Yard, who considered the luncheon to honor Eleanor's 100th birthday at the Reagan White House—which has so roundly rejected the New Deal approach to social justice—an insult. So she put on her ERA T-shirt and padded over to Pennsylvania Avenue to wave a Retire Ronald Reagan placard.)

In Philadelphia, Yard battled to clean up corruption in city government. In California, she supported Helen Gahagan Douglas against Richard Nixon in their memorable 1950 U.S. Senate race. Along the way, she also raised three children—with help. "I was not a genius as a mother," she admits. "I had very good housekeepers." Yard's daughter, Joan Garrett-Goodyear, an English professor, remembers that "there were times when I wish she had been more available, but she was committed to making things better on more than just a private stage."

Yard is as unconventional a grandmother as she was a mother. She goes mountain climbing with her grandchildren and gives them dolls dressed as construction workers. Yet even the indomitable Yard hesitated last June when longtime friend Ellie Smeal approached her about the NOW post. "I thought if I were 10 years younger, I would love to do it," she says. "Then I remembered Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony never stopped, even in their 80s."

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