This year’s board elections at the National Organization for Women were already poised to be tense: Allegations of racism at the highest levels of the feminist group have infuriated its membership and pitted current board members against one another. Now, the election is threatening to be completely upended by allegations that a candidate is claiming to be a woman of color in order to boost her election prospects.
NOW members told The Daily Beast they were shocked when BJ Star, a current board member, identified herself as Asian-American in campaign materials. Star, born Barbara Bencsik, had never identified herself as such in previous campaigns, and lists herself as white in voter registrations dating back to 1984. Multiple members said Star had not identified herself as a woman of color in past conversations about race or attended special meetings designed for women of color in NOW.
Despite this, Star’s bio on the candidates’ website now states that she intends to build NOW’s diversity membership “as Asian-American.” (Downloaded versions of the page show this line was added sometime between July 23 and Aug. 7.) According to emails obtained by The Daily Beast, Star personally told at least one woman that she intended to run as a woman of color.
State chapter leaders are furious over the situation, claiming Star is manipulating her identity to benefit herself in the upcoming election. Several have called for her to step down.
“You can’t wear race like lipstick—one day you want to be red, one day you want to be black, one day you want to be brown,” said Triana Arnold-James, a Black woman and NOW member who is also running for the board. “I don’t appreciate her trying to use that to really keep true women of color out of leadership roles.”
Star has not publicly elaborated on her heritage beyond the campaign bio, and it is unclear what Asian-American ancestry she is claiming. Neither she nor representatives for NOW responded to multiple requests for comment. Whether or not she does, in fact, have Asian heritage, the dispute—which has now made its way to the national elections committee—shows the role that race has taken on in NOW’s internal leadership struggles.
In June, a dozen women came forward to speak about their experiences of racism at NOW—including at the hands of current President Toni Van Pelt. As a result, nine board members and the majority of NOW’s state presidents have called for Van Pelt’s resignation. But Van Pelt has so far refused to resign, and the board needs three more votes in order to force her out. The upcoming board elections, then, have the power not only to change the makeup of the board, but the face of the entire NOW leadership.
Star is part of the minority of board members who have refused to vote against Van Pelt. Some members have attributed her sudden urge to run as a woman of color to a little-employed provision in the NOW bylaws that allows each region to have an extra seat on the board if it is occupied by a woman of color—a provision created to incentivize more diversity on the board.
Kim Porteous—the state president for Florida, where Star is running—said she had multiple conversations with Star over the years about recruiting more women of color for this seat. Not once did Star say she considered herself a woman of color. Kolieka Seigle, who runs NOW’s yearly women of color caucus, said Star had not attended since at least 2015. A second member said she had not seen her at the caucus, where women of color gather with allies to discuss the issues affecting them, since at least 2013.
This year, however, Star’s board seat is newly competitive. A NOW member named Lakey Love is also running out of Florida, effectively challenging Star for the position. If Star identifies as a woman of color, she could be slotted into the extra board seat even if she loses her campaign. In fact, two members present for an election planning call told The Daily Beast that the organization may not even send ballots to the southern region, because they now consider it an uncontested race.
Even if Star did have Asian-American heritage, some NOW members said, revealing it suddenly at the age of 71, when it would be advantageous in her election, felt opportunistic and hurtful to women of color.
“To me, it’s an election ploy,” said Mariquita Anderson, a NOW member from Minnesota who is Asian-American. “She’s run for this seat before and never has mentioned being Asian-American, and all of a sudden, now? That’s too coincidental.”
“BJ is saying she’s an Asian American, but has she really walked in my shoes?” she added. “Has she been spit upon, like I have? Has she been denied jobs because her name sounds funny? I highly doubt it.”
In emails obtained by The Daily Beast, the chair of NOW’s elections committee said she had shared the concerns about Star’s claims with the committee and would “report back once we conclude our review.”
Star’s supporters, however, have tried to flip the logic of diversity and inclusion on those who are speaking out. In emails about the issue obtained by The Daily Beast, one board member wrote, “So suddenly we no longer believe women of color??” Another member said Star had moved to Asia at one point to “learn more about her people and ancestry.” (“I’ve lived in the US all 56 years of my life and that still doesn’t make me a white person,” Anderson retorted.)
After months of dealing with allegations of racism at NOW, members said this latest incident made them doubt that the organization could truly change.
“We’re in a time where NOW is already in a position where it’s not living up to its commitment to racial justice,” Seigle said. “And instead of doing better, y’all want to dig your heels in and actually do worse because you feel like you’re losing the organization.”
She added, “Your response is in order to fight women of color, you need to become one."