How Peg Yorkin’s feminism changed the world

A woman in a red jacket and shoes patterned with the Campbell's Soup logo smiles in front of photos of marching suffragettes.
Peg Yorkin was one of the co–founders of the Feminist Majority Foundation and campaigned to bring medication abortion to the U.S.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The end of Peg Yorkin’s high-powered Hollywood marriage was only the beginning of her feminist campaign to change the world.


Around the middle of the 20th century, a strange dread fell across many American households, more tangible than the Soviet menace or nuclear annihilation, yet harder to talk about. “The Feminine Mystique” author Betty Friedan called it “the problem that has no name.”

“Each suburban wife struggled with it alone,” Friedan wrote in 1963. “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffered Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?’”

For millions of women serving as middle-class homemakers, democracy had won World War II in western Europe and the Pacific, but still hadn’t secured a beachhead inside the American institution of marriage. The unsettled question of those years was whether the destiny of women and their daily reality of cleaning up after their husbands and children were supposed to be the same thing. The generation of these women who saw a different future for themselves would soon change the world.


Peg Yorkin, the longtime L.A. activist and feminist philanthropist who pushed to bring the abortifacient mifepristone to the U.S., has died at 96.

June 27, 2023

Peg Yorkin, hailed as a feminist hero after she died of renal failure in Malibu on June 25 at the age of 96, was one of those women.

The story of how Yorkin transcended an early station as a frustrated Hollywood housewife to take leading roles later in life in the worlds of philanthropy, theater producing, California politics and the second-wave feminist movement is also a story about the changing fortunes of women across the 20th century and the barriers they still haven’t surmounted.

“Someone like Peg, had she been born later, who knows what she would have been able to do with her life,” said Kathy Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, a women’s rights organization Spillar co-founded with Yorkin and others in 1987, when Yorkin had fully thrown herself into feminist politics. “She was always saying, ‘I’m 65, I want this done in my lifetime.’ And then she turned 70, and 75, and she never stopped saying it. She knew the price that women were paying for the lack of progress toward equality.”

In the 1990s, Yorkin used millions of dollars from her divorce from Hollywood producer-director Bud Yorkin to bankroll Feminist Majority Foundation and help organize an ultimately successful campaign to persuade European pharmaceutical companies to bring the abortion drug mifepristone to the U.S., where medication abortion is now the most common method that millions of American women use to end their pregnancies.

“She always said she was thankful for California divorce laws,” said her daughter, screenwriter Nicole Yorkin, a Writers Guild of America West board member and member of the union’s negotiating committee. “In the divorce, my mom got half, more or less. She then took that and did something with it.”

The hand-lettered sign over Peg Yorkin’s office in West Los Angeles warns: “Absolutely No Soliciting.”

Oct. 4, 1991

Peg Yorkin, who served as the longtime chair of the Feminist Majority Foundation, spent millions more on more feminist causes, including supporting the election of feminist political candidates and the 2001 rescue of Ms. Magazine, which was co-founded by Gloria Steinem and remains in operation when so many other outlets have shuttered.


“America has lost a giant of the feminist movement, who devoted decades of her life to the fight for gender justice,” former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said in a statement, crediting Yorkin as one of her “earliest, strongest” political supporters. “Many of us in the Congress have been fortunate enough to call Peg a dear friend and devoted partner to our mission of equality for all.”

Yorkin had also counted U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) as close friends, along with former Los Angeles City Council member and longtime California power broker Rosalind Wyman.

“The women’s movement has a number of leaders, Gloria Steinem, you can name them all, and I’m not sure that Peg ever got as much of the acknowledgment that she deserved,” said Jean Picker Firstenberg, president emerita of the American Film Institute and a longtime friend. “I don’t think that bothered her. But when you look back, what she did stands pretty tall right now.”

Yorkin, born Peg Diem in New York on April 16, 1927, had Friedan’s “problem that has no name,” just with an L.A. showbiz angle. While her famous husband Bud Yorkin forged a career as a coveted director of musical variety shows and specials in the 1950s, Peg minded the home and the two kids, led the Girl Scout troop, did PTA, ran the carpools, played bridge and kept Bud respectable in polite society. At one point the pair lived in Encino around the corner from Norman Lear, with whom Bud co-produced the hit 1970s television shows “All in the Family,” “Maude” and “Sanford and Son.”

But Peg was never content to play Bud’s helper. “Here I am, with an IQ — what is it — something like 168, living in Encino, thinking, ‘What am I doing?’” she said later. She was unafraid to speak her mind, an inveterate swearer, and by her own admission, could be combative at dinner parties, especially with male guests, which sometimes made Bud “awfully mad.”

She knew, in another life, with fewer rules and different expectations, she would have been just as professionally successful as her husband. Yet even in this life, she would not be repressed. Doing the nonprofit work that was then more appropriate for Hollywood women and wives, Yorkin notably kept rising into leadership positions and building political connections, at one point serving as president of SHARE, a charity for children with developmental challenges.


In 1975, at the request of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Yorkin, who had previously worked as an actor, became a producer in her own right and took over the Los Angeles Shakespeare Festival. Within eight years, she had transformed the festival into the L.A. Public Theater and become “the heart” of it, as the L.A. Times called her. But as she produced more modern and increasingly political works, interviewers kept asking her about her famous husband.

To his credit, Bud was an “independent husband,” Peg Yorkin told one reporter. “Never once did Bud try to hinder me, at anything. A lot of husbands pay lip service to their wives’ independence. They say things like ‘I want you to achieve, but I also want you in Palm Springs this weekend.’”

After the pair divorced in 1986, Peg Yorkin, nearing what might normally be called retirement age, had long ditched Friedan’s “problem.” She was free, and just as critically for what would come next, she was flush: California’s community property divorce laws meant half of the couple’s sizable assets were hers, including stakes in Bud’s massively popular TV shows with Lear, as well as the movie “Blade Runner,” in which Bud served as executive producer.

Never underestimate the value of good divorce laws. “She didn’t ‘take’ that money. Half of that money was hers,” said Spillar. “She earned it in the course of her marriage. She was the anchor that provided a home, provided for entertaining, all of the stuff that goes into success in the entertainment world for a man.”

The same year, Yorkin completed her transformation into feminist activism when Eleanor Smeal, then the president of the National Organization for Women, persuaded Yorkin to produce a star-studded 20th anniversary show for NOW at L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The pair helped co-found the Feminist Majority Foundation in 1987 and began to grapple with escalating anti-abortion protests at clinics in L.A., where sometimes hundreds would be arrested.

When stories started spreading about an effective new abortion drug in France called RU-486 — now known as mifepristone — that would allow women to avoid risky procedures or protester-targeted clinics, Yorkin pressed her feminist colleagues to start asking questions about why the drug wasn’t available in the U.S., said Smeal, who became the foundation’s president.


Pressure from American anti-abortion activists had almost persuaded the drug’s French manufacturer, Roussel Uclaf, to try to pull the drug from the French market. But French Minister of Health Claude Évin intervened, declaring the drug “the moral property of women.”

“She kept on thinking, ‘Why won’t they bring it in, why won’t they bring it to the United States?’” Smeal said of Yorkin, who had maintained an address book with information on Mexican abortion providers in the years before abortion was legalized in the U.S., in case a friend ever needed it. “She saw it as a major thing, not only to help people here in the United States, but help women worldwide. Huge numbers of women were dying still from botched illegal abortions.”

Yorkin earmarked $5 million for a campaign to import the drug, and the Feminist Majority Foundation helped assemble a team of scientists and 700,000 petitions to take to Europe to directly lobby Uclaf and its German parent company, Hoechst AG. After nearly a decade of advocacy, made possible by Yorkin’s backing, and several bureaucratic and political twists and turns, the drug finally won approval by the FDA in 2000.

“She liked the second half of her life a lot better than the first. No question about that,” Firstenberg said. “Once she found her gait, she never slowed up. She just kept pushing. That gait was devoted to theater, and then that gait was devoted to women’s rights. She picked the largest landscape she could find, and she changed it. You can’t ask more of a human: commitment. We owe her a big debt, we really do, for setting the feminist agenda, and for giving women the right to live their lives the way they wanted. I’m referencing abortion.”

But the work was never really over. Mifepristone’s approval now faces legal challenges from conservatives who are pushing to curtail abortion rights following the U.S. Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade. Other struggles for parity remain. Smeal said Yorkin continued coming into the foundation’s offices in Beverly Hills — which she bought and designed — until near the end of her life. “She had an office, she worked constantly, until she got sick,” Smeal said.

Yorkin’s daughter said she had been diagnosed with vascular dementia. Yorkin is survived by her daughter; her son, writer David Yorkin; and four grandchildren.


Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.