Women's Health

Peg Yorkin, who helped bring the abortion pill to the United States, dies at 96

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Peg Yorkin, a feminist activist and philanthropist who, as founder of the Feminist Majority, a national women’s rights organization, campaigned to introduce the abortion pill mifepristone to the United States and to increase the number of women in political office, died Sunday at her home in Malibu, Calif. She was 96 years old.

The cause was kidney failure, said his daughter, Nicole Yorkin.

The Feminist Majority was founded in 1987 by Ms. Yorkin, Katherine Spillar, Toni Carabillo, Judith Meuli and Eleanor Smeal, former president of the National Organization for Women. They took the organization’s name from a poll indicating that more than 50% of women in the United States identified as feminists.

The organization’s first push was to increase the number of women running for office; at the time, only 5% of members of Congress were women. To galvanize women, Ms. Yorkin produced a multi-state tour through 21 cities that she designed as a political convention; at the end of each event there was what Ms Smeal described in a phone interview as an ‘altar call’, with some women pledging to run for office and others pledging to support them .

In five years, the number of women in Congress has doubled (it is now 28%). Ms. Yorkin was so dogged 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 political action committee made up of only one woman.

Ms Yorkin and her colleagues then turned to mifepristone, which the French government approved in 1998 for use in family planning clinics to induce abortions in early pregnancy. (Claude Évin, France’s health minister, declared the drug “the moral property of women.”) But it would take 12 years for it to be approved for use in the United States.

Mrs Yorkin, Mrs Smeal and others garnered support from scientists and politicians, and in 1990 they traveled to Europe to urge the French company that held the patent for mifepristone to seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration – while at the same time, anti-abortion activists were fighting to keep it out. The following year, Ms. Yorkin gave her organization $10 million to boost its efforts. It was thought to be the biggest giveaway yet to a women’s rights group.

Women must “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 “transform our rage in direct action”.

For decades Ms Yorkin had been a ‘Hollywood wife’ known for her charity work. She was married to Bud Yorkin, the television producer who, along with Norman Lear, created “All in the Family,” the pioneering sitcom centered on a working-class fanatic named Archie Bunker that rocked television in 1971, and his famous spin-offs “Maude” and “The Jeffersons”, as well as other hit shows like “Sanford and Son”.

In 1973, The New York Times called Ms. Yorkin “Queen of Hollywood Society”, highlighting her work as president of SHARE Inc. (the initials stand for Share Happily and Reap Endlessly), a Beverly Hills charity that benefits to children with disabilities. She often describes herself as a typical ’50s housewife — a product of her time who, like many women, was emboldened by second-wave feminism.

She threw herself into the women’s movement in the 1970s, pushing for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, among other efforts. After leaving SHARE, she ran the Los Angeles Shakespeare Festival and then the LA Public Theater, producing works by playwrights like AR Gurney and John Guare. But it was only after her divorce from Mr. Yorkin in 1986, when Mrs. Yorkin was 60, that she was able to fully concentrate on the work that would capture her national attention.

“It wasn’t until a 30-year marriage broke down and I reaped the benefits of California’s community property laws that I was able to do anything real about feminism,” he said. she stated in an interview for her entry in the 1999 book, “Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia.”

Ms Spillar, who is now executive director of the Feminist Majority, recalled Ms Yorkin saying that in the days leading up to the landmark Roe v. Wade, she had helped women find doctors in Mexico who could perform abortions. She said, Ms Spillar recalled, “I want us to think big and I want us to do more and I want us to hurry. I’m not going to live forever and I want it to happen in my lifetime.

Peggy Diem was born on April 16, 1927 in New York. (She hated her first name and went by Margaret in high school and then Peg.) Her mother, Dora (Lavine) Diem, was a homemaker who had wanted to be an actress. Her father, Frank, was a still photographer who worked for DW Griffith and other filmmakers.

Frank, an alcoholic, left the family when Peg was 11; Dora struggled financially and moved in with her mother in Yonkers, NY, with whom Peg shared a bed. It was, she later recalled, a traumatic childhood.

Peg was extremely bright and skipped a few grades at Roosevelt High School before gaining admission to Barnard College at age 16 on a scholarship. 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, whom she had met in an agent’s office, in 1954.

“If I had been a man, I would have been very successful in business,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “I could have been Bud Yorkin if I was a man.”

Still, she found her own way. To help fund her theatrical productions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she held an annual bingo game on the night of the Academy Awards. “Gamers don’t care about the Oscars,” her son recalled, though she used saltier language. A bronze plaque on his office door read, “Peg Yorkin is beyond therapy. Do not disturb.”

In 2001, she donated an additional $5 million to her organization to help acquire Ms. magazine, which was founded by Gloria Steinem and others in 1971 and had been struggling for some time. “We weren’t a media company, but we were determined not to lose a feminist press, and Gloria asked us for help,” Ms Smeal said. “And Peg said, ‘We have no choice. If Gloria says we have to do it, we have to do it.'”

In addition to her daughter, Ms. 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 end their pregnancies; it now accounts for more than 50% 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 to focus on access to mifepristone. In April, a Texas judge suspended the drug’s decades-old FDA approval, a move that has the potential to pull it from the market nationwide. The Supreme Court has suspended the decision for the time being.

Looking back on the 12-year effort to introduce mifepristone to the United States, Ms Smeal recalled Ms Yorkin’s insistence 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.”

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