Push to Oust NOW President Grows Amid New Racism Complaints
President Toni Van Pelt faces fresh pressure to resign following a Daily Beast investigation into allegations of discrimination at the feminist organization.
More women have come forward with allegations of racism at the National Organization for Women after a Daily Beast investigation revealed a pattern of discrimination that stretched from the state chapters to the highest levels of the storied feminist organization.
Earlier this week, nine board members signed a letter calling for President Toni Van Pelt’s resignation, after The Daily Beast reported that more than 15 former staffers, including the former vice president, had accused Van Pelt of racist behavior in 2018. Now the boards of the Massachusetts and Florida chapters, citing the report, have issued public statetments calling on Van Pelt to step down immediately. “Toni has lost our confidence to not only carry out, but to represent the mission of our organization,” the Florida group wrote.
Meanwhile, NOW’s head of college students, Grace Weber, has resigned her position over the allegations, saying in an email to The Daily Beast that “the organization’s actions have completely tarnished my work among many others.”
NOW and Van Pelt did not respond to a request for comment on the new complaints. In an email to members last week, Van Pelt apologized for any hurt she had caused and committed to five action items to improve racial justice within the organization.
Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director and co-founder of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund and a NOW board member for four years, told The Daily Beast she first met Van Pelt at a NOW conference in Baltimore in 2012. A number of women of color were concerned by what they saw as racist incidents at the conference, including a petition to name a voting rights resolution after Alice Paul, a suffragette who fought to exclude black women from the movement.
At a later event, women of color wanted to discuss what they had experienced, and the white women in the room were asked to leave, Bertram Roberts said. But Van Pelt refused, and unleashed a tirade on how she had always fought for women of color and resented being asked to leave, she recalled.
“All of a sudden this space that was supposed to be for women of color now turned into, ‘Let’s all educate Toni on why she’s being privileged right now and why she should not be taking up this space,” Bertram Roberts said.
Bertram Roberts said the experience was consistent with her experience at NOW as a whole. She left her role as a national board member in 2016.
“I realized my first board meeting that this was going to be awful,” she said. “I spent my entire time during the meeting going, ‘Excuse me, that’s not true for women in the South. Excuse me, that’s not true for black women. Excuse me, that’s not true for working class women.’”
“I felt like that’s all I said the whole time I was there,” she said. “And I don’t mean just during meetings.”
Former employees say these issues continued after Bertram Roberts left, and even after the 15 former staffers submitted their 22-page letter on issues with racism within the organization.
Hayley Margolis, who was a NOW intern in 2018, said she was so horrified by the racism and transphobia she witnessed at that year’s national conference that she created an entire presentation on how the organization could address these issues. (One particularly jarring memory, Margolis said, was Van Pelt repeatedly saying that feminism was “like oxygen on an airplane: You put on your own mask before helping others.”)
When Margolis presented her concerns to Van Pelt and her supervisor at the time, she said, the president was combative and interrupted her throughout the entire presentation. Margolis said she was so disappointed with what she witnessed at the national headquarters over the summer and into the fall that she wound up leaving her internship early.
Three staff members have left the organization already this year, two of whom told The Daily Beast their exit was in part due to how Van Pelt treated staffers of color—especially her vice president, Christian Nunes, a black woman who says she is being sidelined at the organization for raising her concerns and those of staff of color.
“NOW was a hostile work environment for women of color, and I feel like [Vice President Christian Nunes] specifically experienced anti-black racism,” said former political director Sara Mitchell. “It just felt like a treadmill where nothing is actually moving and we were just having to experience the same issues."
Another former employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said Van Pelt showed up late to the organization’s recent racial justice summit and worked on her iPad the entire time. At another racial equity training, the employee said, the president brought a staffer of color to tears by repeatedly asking the presenters, “What about Latina women? What about Native women?” when they brought up the experiences of black women.
Mitchell said she was candid in her exit interview in her belief that NOW would not be a safe space for women of color as long as Van Pelt and other “complicit” board members remained.
"When it comes to real anti-racism allyship and advocacy, there are a lot of people at NOW who aren’t doing that zero step of acknowledging their own complicity,” she said.
But the issues were not confined to Van Pelt’s time in office. Chitra Panjabi, who served as vice president under previous NOW President Terry O’Neill starting in 2009, tweeted this week that she left her position at NOW halfway through her four-year term, due in large part to “the racism within the organization, at both chapter level and within the national office.”
“I don’t often talk about my time at NOW because it was so demoralizing, and wore me completely down,” Punjabi tweeted. “For a long time afterwards, I felt like *I* had failed in my work to change an organization to be anti-racist, center WOC voices, and use an intersectional analysis.
“Now, I know no matter how much you try, you can’t change an institution unless it is willing to do the work to transform,” she added. “That wasn’t on me or the many other WOC and in particular young WOC within the organization’s ranks. So many of us have left NOW and never looked back.”
Loretta Ross, one of the creators of the reproductive justice movement and NOW’s first director of women of color programs, told The Daily Beast she cut ties with the organization in 2009, after members declined to elect Latifa Lyles, a black woman, as president. But Ross also credited the organization for the work it has done on behalf of black women, including sponsoring the first women of color conference on reproductive rights in 1987.
“This is not an angel-devil story,” she said. “This is a story about very complicated people who are in many ways doing the best that they can.”
“But there is a culture in America of white liberals who can’t deal with the complexities of race,” she added. “And why would NOW be any more immune to that than any other institution?”