Yorkin’s work was crucial to increasing the number of women serving in elected office and securing the abortion pill in the U.S.
Peg Yorkin—leading U.S. feminist, philanthropist and strategist, as well as theater producer—died on Sunday, June 25, 2023, at the age of 96. In the midst of our collective grief, we honor and pay tribute to a co-founder as well as the one and only chair of the board of the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), publisher of Ms. Since the day FMF started in 1987, Peg Yorkin was important in conceptualizing the organization’s mission and potential significance in the struggle for equality and women’s rights.
“Above all, Peg was a feminist philanthropist, leader and activist, who also was a truth teller,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and publisher of Ms.
“Peg was impatient. She wanted to see change now,” said Kathy Spillar, executive editor of Ms. and executive director of FMF. “She would constantly remind us of her age and wanted to see the changes in her lifetime. She thought big and had total confidence we could make a difference.”
Two of Yorkin’s favorite campaigns were the Feminization of Power campaign, to increase the numbers of women in elected office; and the FMF campaign to bring mifepristone, the abortion pill, to the United States.
Both were wildly successful:
- When the Feminization of Power campaign was first announced in the late ’80s, only 5 percent of the members of U.S. Congress were women. Today, that number is almost 29 percent—thanks in large part to the work of FMF and its legislative and political arm, the Feminist Majority.
- Today, the abortion pill mifepristone is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and more than half of U.S. abortions are conducted with the use of mifepristone. The medication has great potential to treat many diseases and cancers primarily impacting women.
Yorkin started her feminist work in 1986, producing the National Organization for Women’s 20th anniversary event at the Los Angeles Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In support of women’s rights, the event hosted over 100 major celebrities and media personalities. At the time, the event marked the largest number of personalities ever assembled on behalf of feminist issues. Directed by Anne Commire, the two-hour show presented a serious—and sometimes humorous—look at women’s lives over the last 20 years through the use of archival film, film essays and anecdotes read by the celebrities and musical performers. A crowd of 3,000 attendees laughing, cheering and celebrating feminist victories served as fuel for future struggles, and video footage of the show was used extensively.
In 1987, Yorkin, Smeal (then the immediate past president of the National Organization for Women), Spillar, Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli formed FMF and FM. Yorkin became chair of the Board of Directors for both groups. For over three decades, the organization has spearheaded major projects to empower women and gain gender equality.
The first goal: Put equal representation of women in political office higher on the feminist agenda. The Feminization of Power campaign and national tour went on to inspire unprecedented numbers of women to run for public office. Yorkin became the producer of the national tour, which traveled to eight states and 21 cities attracting some 2,000 feminists at each event with hundreds at each stop pledging to run or helping feminists to run.
Yorkin became very involved in health and reproductive rights issues as they impacted women’s lives. In 1988, the French government approved RU486 or mifepristone—an anti-progesterone medication useful for early-stage abortions and emergency contraceptives—to be distributed through family planning centers. The French Ministry of health declared it the “moral property of women.”
Yorkin immediately saw mifepristone’s importance. FMF consulted leading doctors and scientists and major U.S. medical and scientific associations, forming a massive educational and research campaign.
In 1990, Yorkin, Smeal, FMF’s 10-member scientific and medical delegation, and other feminist leaders including Patricia Ireland, then-executive vice president of NOW, traveled to Paris and Frankfurt to meet with executives of Roussel Uclaf and Hoechst AG, the owner of Roussel Uclaf. The campaign, which lasted about 12 years, delivered over 700,000 petitions to the executives at the two pharmaceutical companies, urging them to let mifepristone come to the U.S.
In 1991, Yorkin donated $10 million to the Feminist Majority Foundation—at that time believed to be the largest contribution to a women’s rights organization. Fifty percent of the gift was to help fund the campaign to bring mifepristone to the U.S.; the other half was an endowment for FMF. This campaign lasted until September 2000, when the FDA approved mifepristone for early abortion. For over 20 years, FMF has sponsored a compassionate use program for mifepristone to help patients, mostly women, be treated with mifepristone if the patient has progesterone-dependent cancers or tumors.
In 2001, when FMF became publisher of Ms. magazine, Yorkin pledged $5 million toward the magazine’s operations—a critical investment that sustained operations during the transition and the months after.
Peg Yorkin was very proud of FMF’s work; she contributed not only funds but also her own labor, coming into the office daily at FMF’s offices in Beverly Hills, Calif., until the COVID pandemic. She owned the building, provided it pro bono and completely renovated it so the staff of FMF, FM and Ms. magazine could have a home. A large community room frequently hosts feminist organizations for meetings and events. FMF and FM also have offices in Arlington, Va.
Yorkin also supported FMF’s global programs vigorously. She was a world traveler, having been to all continents, and wanted to fight poverty and sexism everywhere. She enthusiastically supported the Stop Gender Apartheid campaign in Afghanistan and The Pad Project, which fights for sanitary menstrual products to become available to young poor women.
Peg Yorkin donated not only to FMF and Ms.—she has also provided funding to a host of feminist, civil rights, educational and healthcare organizations, and to many individuals who simply needed a helping hand. At various times, she served on the boards of the Los Angeles Civil Liberties Union, KCET-TV public broadcasting in Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Women’s Political Committee.
She gave contributions to many political candidates—mostly women. At one event honoring Peg, former Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) quipped, Peg is “virtually a political action committee for women candidates.” A long-time active member of the Los Angeles-based Women’s Political Committee, Peg Yorkin was a strong supporter of many members of Congress, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former Sen. Barbara Boxer and Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi.
Yorkin was also a leader in the arts in Los Angeles. She was elected president to the California Theater Council and was a board member of the California Arts Council and the theater panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. She also served on the executive committees of the Los Angeles Theater Association, the League of Producers and the California Confederation of the Arts. Eventually in 1982, according to her daughter Nicole Yorkin, Peg transformed L.A. Shakespeare Festival into the L.A. Public Theater (LAPT).
Age finally caught up to Peg, but she has left us stronger and wiser and an example to follow.
Rest in power, Peg Yorkin. You have made a difference for millions of women and girls. In our work, we will honor you every day.
U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.