Peg Yorkin, a feminist activist and philanthropist who, as founder of the Feminist Majority, a national women’s rights organization, campaigned to bring mifepristone, the abortion pill, to the United States and increase the number of women in political office, died Sunday. at her home in Malibu, California. She was 96.
The cause was kidney failure, said her daughter, Nicole Yorkin.
The Feminist Majority was founded in 1987 by Ms. Yorkin, Katherine Spillar, Toni Carabillo, Judith Meuli, and Eleanor Smeal, a former president of the National Organization for Women. They took the organization’s name from polls that showed more than 50 percent of women in the US identified as feminists.
The organization’s first move was to increase the number of women running for office; at the time, only 5 percent of congressmen were women. To excite women, Ms. Yorkin produced a 21-city multistate tour that she designed as a political convention; at the end of each event there was what Mrs. Smeal characterized in a telephone interview as an “altar call,” with some women pledging to run for office and others pledging to support them.
Within five years, the number of women in Congress doubled (it is now 28 percent). Ms. Yorkin was so persistent in her efforts and so generous with her financial support, Ms. Smeal said, that Barbara Mikulski, the longtime Democratic senator from Maryland, once described her as a one-woman political action committee.
Ms Yorkin and her colleagues then turned to mifepristone, which the French government had approved in 1998 for use in family planning centers to induce abortions in the early stages of pregnancy. (Claude Évin, France’s health minister, declared the drug “the moral property of women”.) But it would take 12 years for its use to be approved in the United States.
Mrs. Yorkin, Mrs. Smeal and others received support from scientists and politicians, and in 1990 they traveled to Europe to urge the French company that held the patent on mifepristone to seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration – all the while battling anti-abortion activists to keep it out. The following year, Ms. Yorkin gave $10 million to her organization to boost her efforts. It was considered the greatest gift to a women’s rights group to date.
Women need to “put our money where our anger is,” Ms. Yorkin told The Los Angeles Times in 1991, adding that “it’s time to stop begging men for our rights” and to “turn our anger in direct action.”
For decades, Mrs. Yorkin had been a “Hollywood woman” known for her charitable work. She was married to Bud Yorkin, the television producer who co-created “All in the Family” with Norman Lear, the groundbreaking sitcom centered around a bigoted working class named Archie Bunker that rocked television in 1971, and the celebrated spin-offs “Maude and “The Jeffersons,” as well as other hit shows like “Sanford and Son.”
In 1973, the NewsMadura called Mrs. York the “queen of Hollywood society,” calling her work as president of SHARE Inc. (the initials stand for Share Happily and Reap Endlessly), a Beverly Hills charity that benefits children with disabilities. She often described herself as a quintessential 1950s housewife—a product of her time who, like many women, was encouraged by second-wave feminism.
In the 1970s, she threw herself into the women’s movement, pushing for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, among other things. After leaving SHARE, she ran the Los Angeles Shakespeare Festival and then the LA Public Theater, producing work by playwrights such as AR Gurney and John Guare. But it wasn’t until her divorce from Mr. Yorkin in 1986, when Mrs. Yorkin was 60, that she was able to concentrate fully on the work that would capture her national attention.
“It wasn’t until a 30-year marriage fell apart and I reaped the benefits of California’s community property laws that I was able to do something concrete about feminism,” she said in an interview for her 1999 entry in the book “Women in World History : a biographical encyclopedia.”
Ms. Spillar, who is now executive director of the Feminist Majority, recalled that Ms. Yorkin said that in the days before the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, she helped women find doctors in Mexico who could perform abortions. She said, Mrs Spillar recalls, “I want us to think big and I want us to do more and I want us to get along. I’m not going to live forever and I want this to happen while I’m alive.”
Peggy Diem was born on April 16, 1927 in New York City. (She hated her first name and went by Margaret in high school and then by Peg.) Her mother, Dora (Lavine) Diem, was a housewife who had wanted to be an actress. Her father, Frank, was a silent photographer who worked for DW Griffith and other filmmakers.
Frank, an alcoholic, left the family when Peg was 11; Struggling financially, Dora moved in with her mother in Yonkers, NY, with whom young Peg shared a bed. It was, she would later recall, a traumatic childhood.
Peg was extremely bright and skipped a few grades at Roosevelt High School before being accepted to Barnard College on a scholarship at age 16. But under pressure from her mother, she left after two years to pursue an acting career she did not want. A brief marriage to Newt Arnold, a film director, ended in divorce when he told her he was having an affair, but it took her to Los Angeles and away from her mother. She married Mr. Yorkin in 1954, whom she had met in an agent’s office.
“If I had been a man, I would have been extremely successful in business,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1991. “I could have been Bud Yorkin if I were a man.”
Yet she found her own way. To help fund her theater productions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she hosted a bingo game each year on the night of the Academy Awards. “The gamblers don’t care about the Academy Awards,” her son recalled saying, though she used saltier language. A bronze plaque on her office door read, “Peg Yorkin is out of therapy. Do not disturb.”
In 2001, she donated another $5 million to her organization to help her take over Ms. magazine, which had been founded in 1971 by Gloria Steinem and others and had been struggling for some time. “We were not a media company, but we were determined not to lose a feminist press and Gloria turned to us for help,” Ms Smeal said. And Peg said, “We don’t have a choice.” If Gloria says we should do it, then we should do it.’”
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Yorkin is survived by a son, David, and four grandchildren.
Since the FDA approved mifepristone in 2000, more than five million women have used it to terminate their pregnancy; it now accounts for more than 50 percent of all abortions. But after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, ending a woman’s guaranteed right to an abortion, anti-abortion activists began focusing on access to mifepristone. In April, a Texas judge suspended the drug’s decades-old FDA approval, a ruling that has the potential to take it off the market nationwide. The Supreme Court has provisionally stopped the ruling.
Looking back on the 12-year effort to bring mifepristone to the United States, Ms. Smeal recalled that Ms. Yorkin insisted that the feminist majority stay the course. “She said it had to be done and it would save lives and we couldn’t get discouraged,” she said, adding, “You can’t be summer soldiers in feminism.”