Monica Weeks knew she was taking a risk when she ran for vice president of the National Organization for Women. She was young—29 years old—and campaigning on the first all-women-of-color ticket in the organization's 50-year history. Her friends thought the group was old-fashioned, and her mother, an immigrant from Cuba, was anxious about her taking on such a high-profile role. But recent family events, coupled with the devastating results of the 2016 election, had convinced her that now was the time to step up.
That’s how Weeks found herself in front of a sea of older white women at the Colors Lounge in Melbourne, Florida, in June 2017, addressing the Brevard County NOW chapter. Her voice broke as she spoke about what motivated her to run, and the conversations she’d had with her mother about the importance of fighting for both women and people of color.
“It’s important because we need to give a voice to those most oppressed in order to make everybody better,” Weeks told the audience, many of whom were around her mother’s age. “That’s women of color, that’s disabled people, that’s LGBTQ people.”
She was about to move on to the most relevant part of her stump speech—how NOW could help do all this—when she was interrupted by a white woman in the audience.
“White women, too!” the woman yelled.
“And then yeah, don’t forget the white women,” Weeks replied evenly.
“Just the women with the pussies!” another woman called out, in what seemed to be a reference to trans women. In video obtained by The Daily Beast, you can hear an audience member groan.
“It’s OK,” Weeks said, attempting to press on. “It is important to include all women.”
“All women!” the first heckler cried.
“It is important to include all women,” Weeks tried. “But if you don't realize the privilege that’s been afforded to you because of a difference in color…”
“We recognize it!” the first woman yelled.
Eventually, Weeks was able to get the crowd back under control. But she says the experience made her realize, for the first time, that there were systemic issues in NOW that even she couldn’t fix.
“This organization has a problem of racism and ageism and [they] don't know how to deal with it,” she told The Daily Beast in an interview.
“I thought when I was coming into the feminist movement I was joining this big sisterhood,” she added, “and that was the biggest disappointment in my life.”
NOW is the oldest and largest feminist organization in the United States. Its members span 550 chapters and all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C. Founded in 1966 by prominent feminists like Betty Friedan, its members have marched for civil rights, raised millions of dollars for female candidates, and led the push for an Equal Rights Amendment for women. NOW was the first national organization to endorse the legalization of abortion and one of the only groups to endorse Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to run for president.
But the 2017 race for NOW’s president and vice president—in which Weeks and longtime member China Fortson-Washington ran, and ultimately lost, a historic campaign to lead the organization—peeled back the veil on what members and employees say is a pattern of racism in the storied feminist group.
In interviews with The Daily Beast, nearly a dozen members, employees, and visitors recalled women of color being heckled, silenced, or openly disparaged at NOW meetings and offices. The behavior culminated at the 2017 conference where, witnesses say, members dismissed Fortson-Washington, a black woman, as “angry” and entitled, and accused Weeks of being a “hot-headed Latina.” On the last day of the conference, more than a dozen women marched around a conference room to protest racism inside the organization.
But the problem didn’t stop there. Internal emails, documents and interviews obtained by the Daily Beast reveal that allegations of racism reached the highest levels of the organization after Weeks and Fortson-Washington’s loss. More than a dozen employees at the national headquarters signed onto a letter accusing President Toni Van Pelt of sidelining and disparaging women of color, and the previous vice president has filed a federal racial discrimination suit.
“I am a black woman, I have experienced racism,” one former employee told The Daily Beast. “But what happened there… I have never experienced that before.”
Shortly after The Daily Beast reached out for comment, Van Pelt sent an email to all NOW Board members, state presidents, staff and PAC members apologizing for any hurt she had caused and committing to five action items to improve racial justice within the organization.
“All Black Lives matter,” she wrote. “As a White woman, I’ll never understand the experiences of women of color. I challenge myself to address structural racism and recognize that this is a lifelong, ongoing process. I do understand it is critical to acknowledge my own privilege and strive to be a better ally. As the leader of NOW, and a leader within the intersectional feminist movement, I must hold myself and our organization accountable to do more.”
NOW was founded in the throes of second-wave feminism—a movement heralded for successes like the Equal Pay Act and Title IX, but criticized for a lack of self-awareness on matters of race. The movement was led largely by middle-class, college-educated white women who, critics say, focused on their own struggle—the plight of the American housewife—at the expense of black and brown women. Even today, NOW members say they struggle to recruit women of color.
That was part of the reason Stephanie Loraine Piñeiro, a Puerto Rican woman and the executive director of a Florida abortion fund, hesitated when the Orlando NOW chapter invited her to speak in 2017. When she did agree, her experience was worse than she could have imagined. Audience members interrupted and talked over her constantly, she said, and the chapter president did nothing to stop them. “It was a shitshow, to be honest,” she told The Daily Beast.
The next day, Piñeiro emailed chapter president Barbara Cady about her concerns, attaching some readings on white silence in the face of racism. To her surprise, Cady responded with a series of increasingly bizarre emails, calling Piñeiro an “immature girl who wants to blame the world for her bad experiences.”
At one point, the chapter president suggested Piñeiro read the book Incidents In The Life of a Slave Girl, writing that there was “no safe space for women of color during [the time of slavery].”
“I’m not buying any of this nonsense about ‘white silence,’” Cady, a white woman, wrote to Piñeiro. “You do not know anything about my experience in life and I resent you thinking its ok for you to spout off about race issues to me … Every women [sic] in that room has suffered, even the white ones.”
“I suggest you get off you [sic] high horse and drop this ‘white women vs women of color’ nonsense,” she added. “We are all in this together, sister. I don’t owe you anything because you believe you have had a certain experience in life from being whatever it is you consider yourself to be.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Cady apologized for the way she had handled the situation.
“I have since left the NOW organization to run for public office in the State of FL and have allied myself with different organizations such as Mision Boricua and Allianza for Progress and have learned much about the issues of racism in America,” she said. “Looking back with what I have learned since then... I could have handled the situation better. I am sorry that I was not better equipped and let my fragile ego get in the way of my work. When we know better, we do better.”
Piñeiro never responded to the five emails she received from Cady. Instead, she promptly canceled all further speaking engagements with NOW and sent the abortion fund’s white president in her place. The last she heard from Cady was last July, when she emailed Piñeiro to solicit donations for her state House campaign.
“I was just shocked at how out of touch [she was] and how much she just did not get that what happened was wrong,” Piñeiro told The Daily Beast. In a follow-up email, she added:
“They don't want to truly engage with young women of color or people of color; they want complacent young WOC bodies in the room because it is trendy to be inclusive.”
Nowhere were these tensions more evident than in the 2017 campaign for NOW president and vice president, in which Weeks and Fortson-Washington campaigned against Van Pelt—a former travel agency owner and “secular humanist activist”— and longtime NOW board member Gilda Yazzie.
While Yazzie is Native American, Weeks and Fortson-Washington would have been the first women of color to claim the presidency and vice presidency at the same time. They told The Daily Beast they experienced racism from the very beginning—from the NOW member who told Weeks to “tone down the Hispanic thing a little bit,” to the woman who assailed their campaign team for “playing the race card.”
The situation came to a head at NOW’s national conference in June, where hundreds of members descended on the Florida Hotel and Conference Center to elect their new leadership. Multiple attendees told The Daily Beast they were shocked by the tense atmosphere: Women wore T-shirts supporting their favored candidate and glared at members of the opposing team across the hallways. (Van Pelt and Yazzie’s T-shirts read “intersectionality” on the back—a reference to a theory of how identities such as race and gender intersect. When one attendee asked a white woman wearing the T-shirt to define the term, she could not.)
On the final night of the convention, candidates were invited to give speeches and participate in a question-and-answer segment. When it was Fortson-Washington’s turn to speak, one attendee said, Van Pelt took out her laptop on stage and started working. Later, the attendee said, she heard an audience member turn to a friend and ask, “Just because she's black she thinks she would be a good leader?"
Another attendee, Tess Martin, said she heard a white woman start complaining about “this Black Lives Matter crap” when Fortson-Washington mentioned bringing more women of color to the table. During the Q-and-A session, Martin said, a woman asked point-blank what white women were supposed to do if everyone was focusing on women of color.
In an email to a friend after the convention ended, Martin expressed her disgust with what she had seen.
“This was supposedly a safe space with women who believed in the things I did—equality for all women, no matter their race, socioeconomic background, sexual preference, gender identity, or disability—but that was only a mask,” Martin, who is black, wrote.
“NOW’s true face was very different,” she added. “Below the convenient lip service of sisterhood, it revealed itself to be the worst kind of clique, and the members are not women who look like me.”
She wasn’t the only one who felt that way. As voting wrapped up that night, more than a dozen members—including outgoing president Terri O’Neil—descended on an end-of-conference happy hour to protest racism within the organization. They marched silently around the high-top tables piled into the hotel conference room, carrying signs reading “Silence is acceptance,” and “No space for hate.” Some of the happy-hour attendees looked on attentively, participant Julie Tran Deily recalled, while others stared at them “like we grew 10 heads” and then-Florida chapter president Terry Sanders screamed at them about having “sour grapes.”
Hours later, they would learn that Van Pelt had won.
“Dear Members of the National NOW Board,” read a June 7, 2018, letter from 15 former NOW staffers and interns. “We are writing to ask for serious consideration of the removal of Toni Van Pelt as President of the National Organization for Women and for serious appraisal of Toni's leadership since she began her term in August 2017.”
The staffers—all of whom resigned or were fired from the national office in the past year—said they were struggling with how to handle Van Pelt’s “illegal, morally reprehensible, dishonest, destructive, and frankly toxic behavior.” They claimed Van Pelt had physically, verbally, and emotionally threatened staff members; irrevocably damaged relationships with coalition partners; and led an office with a total lack of structure and protocols. And then there was the issue of race.
First, the staffers wrote, there was the time Van Pelt spoke on a panel with a black reverend and refused to use his official title, instead calling him by his first name. Then, they said, there was the time she forgot the name of the congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and asked her staffers, “What’s her name? Punjabi?” They said Van Pelt repeatedly referred to the social media director, an Asian-American woman, as the “IT person,” and kept talking over women of color in meetings and conference calls. (In one weekly strategy call, they wrote, Van Pelt cut off a black, female fundraising expert by saying, “I don’t care about your opinion.”)
But what was most concerning, according to the 15 former staffers, was Van Pelt’s treatment of her vice president, Gilda Yazzie. In the months since taking office, they said, Van Pelt had slowly reduced her Native American No. 2’s responsibilities, denying her access to payroll software and instructing staff not to talk to her about payroll-related issues. At one point, the letter claimed, Van Pelt ordered a staff member to buy a stamp of Yazzie’s signature and deliver it to her own home—ostensibly so she could use the vice president’s signature without her consent.
The staffers also claimed Van Pelt had told at least two employees that she chose Yazzie as a running mate only because she needed a woman of color on her ticket. (In a separate letter to the board reviewed by The Daily Beast, a third staffer confirmed hearing this comment.)
“As far as staff could observe, Toni has made no real effort to bring Gilda into the fold and has only increased tension in their relationship through erratic and sometimes violent treatment toward Gilda,” the former staffers wrote. “Throughout Toni’s time at NOW, she has done everything in her power to make Gilda’s work experience miserable.”
Apparently, Yazzie felt the same. In a lawsuit filed in D.C. superior court and removed to U.S. district court in December, the former VP accused the organization of racial discrimination and retaliation, claiming she was forced out of her role when she complained about Van Pelt’s racist harassment.
According to the suit, the disagreement started as soon as the pair assumed office. Yazzie claims Van Pelt refused to collaborate with her, meet individually with her, or even communicate with her directly, except under rare circumstances. The tension reached a climax in late January 2018 when, Yazzie claims in the suit, Van Pelt chased her vice president around the office, throwing papers and yelling, “You won’t be here for three years!” (In the staff letter, several former staffers confirm having heard a commotion on this date.)
Later that day, Yazzie sent an email to the national office staff, alerting them that she would be working from home for a few days and accusing Van Pelt of creating a “hostile workplace.” Van Pelt responded by telling her to expect a new job description. “Let me remind you that I am President and, as such, your immediate supervisor,” she wrote, in emails reviewed by The Daily Beast. “I expect to see you in the office tomorrow behaving in a calm, rational manner.”
The situation only deteriorated from there. Over the summer, Yazzie claims in the suit, some of Van Pelt’s allies on the board pushed to have Yazzie removed from her position—based largely on an external audit report that accused her of mishandling the organization’s finances. Yazzie’s supporters pushed back, saying the finances were never the vice president’s job to begin with. The board eventually agreed to have her work remotely, in part to avoid the atmosphere at the national office, but Yazzie told The Daily Beast she was never given a budget or other tools necessary to do her work.
On May 6, 2019, after Yazzie had been working remotely for less than a year, the board voted to remove her as vice president of the organization to which she had dedicated nearly three decades of her life.
“They are a very poor picture of feminists,” Yazzie told The Daily Beast of the national board. “They didn't care that I was being discriminated against, that I was being tokenized, that I was being threatened in the office, that I was afraid for my safety.”
“They wanted me, but they wanted me as a token,” she added. “They did not want me as a full, functioning vice president.”
NOW has filed a motion to dismiss the suit, claiming Yazzie failed to “sufficiently plead facts that make it plausible that Defendant NOW discriminated against Plaintiff or created a hostile work environment based on her race.” The motions says NOW both hired a mediator to help navigate Van Pelt's and Yazzie's relationship and created a vice-presidential oversight committee to supervise Yazzie's work before she was removed.
In the email Van Pelt sent to members Friday, she apologized for any harm she had caused and added: “I want to and will do better. I want the National Organization for Women to do better and we will do better.”
She also promised to hire a full-time staff member dedicated to increasing diversity throughout NOW, conduct virtual racial equity training and town halls for members, and campaign for police accountability and against voter suppression.
“NOW prioritizes educating our membership about racism, White privilege, systemic and structural oppression and suppression,” she said. “NOW has been working on equality issues for over 50 years, and I know we have much more work to do. We are always listening, learning, growing, and striving to improve.”
Last Wednesday, as protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers gripped the nation, NOW issued a press release claiming that racial justice was “at the core of NOW’s mission” and calling on allies to “stand up, speak out, and make intentional and purposeful movements of solidarity.” (The statement was initially sent out to state chapters with the subject line “‘I Can't Breathe’ – We All Can't Breathe,” which several members protested.)
Just 10 days earlier, NOW’s digital media director, Kim Sontag, had posted a picture on Facebook of a black man standing next to a bicycle, insinuating that he had stolen it. “If you owned a blue TREK with flat handle bar[sic] and a narrow seat, it’s currently having the paint scraped off by this guy,” she wrote. “I’d venture a guess it’s stole [sic].”
After outcry from state chapter leaders, Sontag deleted the post and issued an apology, saying: “I realize now that my judgment was questionable and that my assumption of guilt on the part of the individual in the photo (and the posting of same) could have potentially put that man at risk of real danger.” She remains in her position at NOW.
In a call this week, a diverse group of state chapter leaders scoffed at the idea that NOW could claim racial justice as part of its mission at all.
"The call to end systemic racism is laughable," Koleika Seigle, the California NOW president, told The Daily Beast. “We haven't committed to ending racism within NOW. How can you call for anybody else to clean up their house [when] we haven't cleaned up our own?”
"It's always the other organizations that have well thought-out, well researched [policies], and highly professional people," added Patty Belasalma, a former California president. "The national organization has become a way station for insecure, uncredentialed, sometimes unemployable white women.”
At one point, someone on the call suggested that things would be better if NOW had a woman of color in charge. Fortson-Washington, who was also on the call, was silent for a long time. When she finally spoke, she sounded tired.
“The greatest fear I see in NOW is that the older white women fear change,” she told the group. “They fear the change in what NOW looks like because for so long they've only seen a person who looks like them in leadership.”
“That’s their fear, is that there are women of color out here that are fearless, they’re formidable, they’re intelligent, and they have the capability to lead,” she told The Daily Beast in a follow-up call.
She added: “But in this organization, they always want women of color to be second.”