Nov. 29, 2016, promised to be a lucrative day for the National Organization for Women. It was Giving Tuesday, exactly three weeks after Donald Trump was elected president. A staggering number of donations had already poured in. Stunned that the country had elected a leader with a long history of flagrant misogyny, who boasted on camera about sexual assault, liberals were rushing to back organizations dedicated to defending women’s rights. And who better to support than the most storied feminist activist organization in the country?
To meet the moment, NOW chose to highlight the experiences of board member Barbara Miller, who has been active with NOW since the 1970s, when the organization led the charge on issues such as workplace equality and reproductive rights, firmly fixed at the center of feminism’s second wave. In a mass email to potential donors, Miller, who is white, recalled her early days at NOW, fighting for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
“The concept of feminism was new to me and as I walked into my first NOW meeting I was taken aback by all the excitement. Strong, focused, and engaged women surrounded me speaking up and out against the injustices of the world,” she wrote.
“I instantly knew this was where I was meant to be.”
Women of color have struggled to find that same sense of belonging at NOW. In the 54 years since the organization was founded, few women of color have risen to its highest ranks. The organization’s leadership has always been dominated by white women, said Katherine Turk, a professor of history and gender at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who writes about NOW in her forthcoming book, “A Dangerous Sisterhood.” Ten of NOW’s 11 presidents have been white women. Twelve of its current 17 board members are white.
Atima Omara used to serve in leadership at the National Organization for Women. (André Chung for The Washington Post)
It’s not just NOW. Veteran feminist organizations, led by white women with roots in the second wave, have not made room for women of color, especially black women, according to interviews with 20 former staffers from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) and NOW. Former employees say staffers of color are concentrated in lower level positions, with white leadership shaping organizational priorities that feel largely irrelevant to women who are not white, straight, cisgender, highly educated and upper-middle class. Employees of color were often made to feel like “tokens,” many said, rolled out to show diversity but derided and dismissed within the confines of the office.
The leaders of these organizations aren’t the only source of the problem, staffers say: NOW and AAUW are built around a membership model, with approximately 500,000 and 60,000 members, respectively, scattered in state and local chapters across the country. At both NOW and AAUW, the membership helps determine the organization’s mission and focus, voting on certain policy and leadership decisions. While neither organization conducts demographic surveys of their membership today, eight former staffers at NOW and four at AAUW say the vast majority are white. In 1974, when NOW conducted its last known demographic membership survey, white women made up 90 percent of NOW’s membership. That data, analyzed by Turk for The Lily, was never released to the public.
“If something like that was out there, my hunch is that they knew it could be used against them,” Turk said.
Toni Van Pelt, the president of NOW, was accused of sidelining and disparaging women of color in June, in a Daily Beast article by Emily Shugerman. Despite nine members of the NOW Board calling for Van Pelt to resign — including all of the board’s members of color — she remains in office. (To force out Van Pelt, 12 board members must vote to remove her.) Twenty-four of NOW’s 36 state presidents have also called for Van Pelt’s removal.
“As a White woman, I know I will never fully understand the experiences of women of color,” Van Pelt wrote in a statement to The Lily. “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.”
Even if Van Pelt does resign, former NOW employees say removing her would not be enough to fix the systemic issues of racism within the organization.
“To say that it’s just Toni or just NOW or just Feminist Majority or just AAUW — that’s incorrect,” said one former NOW employee, who is black and asked to remain anonymous because her current employer sometimes partners with NOW. “There are millions of women, especially white women from the second wave, who still hold on to these regressive notions of feminism and progress. They see feminism through the lens of upper-middle-class, college-educated white women.”
When staffers of color tried to address issues of race at these organizations, white leadership would often shut them down, many former employees said, resisting the implication that they should address their own racism.
“They think because they’re nice ladies who care about social justice issues, that means they don’t have any work to do on race,” said Raina Nelson, who worked at AAUW from 2017 to 2019 and uses they/them pronouns. Leaders at AAUW see themselves as feminist pioneers, Nelson says, fighting for equality for all women.
But in practice, they say, they really fight only for white women.
Every summer, approximately 500 college students apply for a handful of intern positions at NOW’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C. They arrive bright-eyed and energized, excited to work for an organization known for its groundbreaking feminist activism, said former intern director Emily Imhoff, who is white.
“NOW was something we learned about in our political science and government classes as an organization at the forefront of women’s rights,” said Sydney Lopez, who is Latina and interned for NOW in the summer of 2017. When she was accepted, she said, it was an honor: “Never in a million years did I think I would receive acknowledgment from an organization like this.”
Sydney Lopez. (Jessica Pons for The Washington Post)
Founded in 1966 by a cohort that included feminist icon Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” NOW was originally created to hold employers accountable for enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Turk said, specifically the clause that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex. Throughout the 1970s, NOW was wildly successful in combating sexism in this space, she said, particularly at the state and local levels.
Across the country, groups of women came together under NOW’s umbrella to identify and root out gender discrimination in their communities, scoring victories like banning gender-specific job ads in newspapers and making Little League teams co-ed. In the mid-to-late ’70s, NOW turned its attention to the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA, sent to states for ratification after passing in the Senate in 1972, promised “legal equality of the sexes,” aiming to outlaw any legal distinction between men and women on issues like divorce, property rights and the draft.
AAUW has its own historical cache. Founded in the late 1800s as an association for women with college degrees, the organization also played a major role in the second wave, drafting influential reports on discrimination against women on campus and pushing for Title IX, which passed in 1972, prohibiting schools from discriminating against students because of their gender.
“Oh my god, I was so impressed by their historic footprint,” said Marie Piayai, who is Asian American and worked at AAUW from 2018 to 2019. When she got a job offer from AAUW, she thought, “They are one of the largest, oldest women’s empowerment groups: Why wouldn’t I get behind this?”
While the Feminist Majority Foundation was not created until 1987, its founder, Ellie Smeal, was the president of NOW for seven nonconsecutive years and currently serves as NOW’s board advisory co-chair, playing a significant role in dictating the priorities of that organization, according to NOW board member Nina Ahmad, who is South Asian American. Smeal, who has led FMF since its founding, created a mission for her organization that was similar to NOW’s, prioritizing the ERA.
These organizations deeply affected many of the women who took part in them during the second wave, said Turk, upending how they saw themselves and what they could become. “These were women who had never spoken in a public meeting — and they came out and demanded equality from men in the halls of power. Many women left their marriages,” she said. “This was life-changing.”
Enough women have left their estates to NOW that the organization has a web page instructing donors on how to “make a bequest in your will.”
Black women were not so enamored with NOW. While the organization had several black women in leadership in the 1960s and ’70s — including NOW co-founder Pauli Murray, a prominent civil rights activist — many black women felt NOW failed to prioritize the issues most important to them, said Ashley Farmer, a professor of black women’s history at the University of Texas at Austin. Some of these black women left NOW and other predominantly white feminist organizations to start their own, Farmer said. The most notable were the National Black Feminist Organization, which was modeled on NOW’s local chapter system, and the Combahee River Collective, whose founding document provides the foundation for our modern understanding of the term “intersectionality.”
The ERA felt particularly irrelevant to black women, said Farmer. From 1972 to 1979, the deadline by which 38 states had to ratify the ERA for the law to take effect, NOW devoted the majority of its time and resources to passing the legislation, ignoring black women like NOW’s second president Aileen Hernandez, who urged the organization to diversify its policy platform, Turk said. When Hernandez pushed for NOW to combat housing discrimination, Turk said, white leaders said that didn’t qualify as a “feminist issue.”
Upper-middle class white women believed the ERA would be instrumental in facilitating their ascent up the corporate ladder, said Turk. “But black women don’t think it’s worth sacrificing a broad agenda that will appeal to a wide swath of women in order to promote pure legal equality,” she said, especially when existing laws have so routinely failed to protect black women.
The ERA remains a top priority for NOW and FMF, despite failing to pass in the requisite number of states in 1979. NOW and FMF scored a major win in January, when Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the legislation more than 40 years later. (In order for the law to take effect, Congress must pass a resolution retroactively extending the deadline.)
On their websites, both organizations list “constitutional equality” as a core issue or principle. In Washington, the walls of the NOW office are plastered with ERA signs, said Lopez. Perhaps more than any other issue, the ERA highlights the racial and generational division at NOW and FMF between women in executive roles and women in entry-level positions, where women of color are concentrated. Some younger staff say they’re baffled by the amount of time and money their organizations still devote to legislation that feels “obsolete” and irrelevant to communities of color.
Women of color have been having the same conversation with “second wavers” — older, white leaders at NOW, like Van Pelt — since at least the early 2000s, said Atima Omara, who is black and worked on various national NOW committees from 2004 to 2009, including the Young Feminist Task Force. (Omara has previously written first-person essays for The Lily.)
“You realize that the ERA doesn’t apply to women who look like me,” said Omara. The ERA “doesn’t solve me getting stopped by the police. It doesn’t solve me getting killed in childbirth.’”
Atima Omara. (André Chung for The Washington Post)
At NOW, Lopez said, “It was the ERA or the highway.”
Van Pelt said she had “not heard” the criticism that the ERA resonates most with white women, alienating women of color. “The ERA has been a focus of NOW since its inception,” Van Pelt wrote in a statement to The Lily. “It is crucial for us to have a constitutional amendment to give women and diverse persons equal rights.”
In 2017, NOW had the opportunity to back new “Intersectional ERA” legislation to be introduced by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). The bill aimed to broaden the reach of the original ERA, articulating new protections specifically for historically marginalized groups, including communities of color. During the final stages of drafting the legislation, Van Pelt announced that NOW would no longer be supporting it, after backing the bill through its earlier stages, according to a 2018 letter to the NOW board from 15 former NOW staffers, outlining what they viewed as Van Pelt’s “morally reprehensible, dishonest, destructive, and frankly toxic behavior.” Van Pelt took issue with the bill explicitly protecting women on the basis of “faith,” said Rachel Motley, who is white and worked at NOW from 2017 to 2018.
“She said she wouldn’t support it because of that phrase,” said Motley. “When I pointed out to her that the Muslim community is being attacked by the Trump administration, she wasn’t concerned.”
Calling Van Pelt to discuss why she pulled NOW’s support, the president of the ERA Coalition, which was also supporting the bill, explained that the Intersectional ERA was meant to “support all individuals who are vulnerable in the Trump administration, including Black men,” according to the letter. In the letter, the former staffers said Van Pelt replied, “I do not care about black men.” Van Pelt forgot Jayapal’s first name while discussing the legislation, Motley said, turning to the staff to ask, “What’s her name? Punjabi?” Imhoff and another former employee also heard this comment.
The bill was never introduced to Congress.
(Van Pelt denies making any of these statements. “To my knowledge, [the Intersectional ERA] was not introduced during my term,” Van Pelt wrote. This directly contradicts three accounts from former staff members and an email obtained by The Lily, sent from Motley to Van Pelt, which confirm that Van Pelt did withdraw support for this legislation during her term.)
At AAUW, Nelson would often propose research projects that centered around women of color, they say, but the organization always chose to focus its major initiatives on issues most relevant to white women. It was particularly frustrating as a member of the research team, Nelson said, to see how much AAUW prioritized its salary negotiation workshops, largely irrelevant to women who work minimum wage jobs.
“My proposals never went anywhere,” said Nelson. “My understanding was that the folks that were funding us were less interested in research [on women of color] and more interested in more quote-unquote ‘neutral’ topics.”
On Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, Nelson wrote a blog post about the significant wage disparity between black women and white men, 17 cents on the dollar wider than the gap between white women and white men. When they forwarded the blog post to a communications director at AAUW, Nelson said, they were asked to make it more “evergreen,” expanding it to discuss pay disparities for other women of color.
“She was like, ‘I was hoping this was something we could use for all women of color so we don’t have to rewrite it.’” (AAUW did not respond to a request for comment on this incident.)
AAUW chief executive Kimberly Churches said the organization does focus on issues central to women of color. “Our research includes analyses and reviews of the disparities and drivers of structural racism and intersectionality,” she wrote in a statement to The Lily. Asked to provide examples of major published research initiatives centered on women of color, Churches linked to two short articles: The first was 300 words, titled, “Issues Affecting Female Students of Color.” The second was Nelson’s 700-word blog post on black women and the pay gap. Churches also cited a project focused on increasing the number of women of color in STEM fields, which is “in phase 1 of a landscape and academic review of research” and has not yet been announced online.
No one without a college degree is permitted to join AAUW, a requirement that can be changed only by a vote of the membership. In 2017 and again in 2018, various members and staff proposed eliminating this membership requirement. Both times, it was struck down, according to Churches.
Even when she worked at AAUW, Piayai chose not to be a member.
“My mother has a high school degree, not a college degree, so she wouldn’t be able to join,” she said. “So of course I refused to join. It didn’t match my values.”
Churches says she’s aware that the organization has “historically had a predominantly white membership” and “faces challenges when it comes to diversity and inclusion,” according to a statement provided to The Lily. “We don’t run away from our problems or pretend they don’t exist — we try to work on them in real time to improve our workplace.”
Sydney Lopez. (Jessica Pons for The Washington Post)
Leaders at NOW seem to understand the need to attract more women of color: They “use all the right language” said Imhoff, printing protest signs with slogans like “trust women of color.” NOW’s website says it’s an organization dedicated to a host of intersectional feminist issues, she said, including “reproductive rights,” “racial justice” and “LGBTQIA+ rights.”
Soon after Trump was elected, Terry O’Neill, who was then president of NOW, doubled down on a major campaign primarily affecting women of color: NOW would mobilize to stem the “sex abuse to prison pipeline,” working to reduce the number of sex abuse victims who end up in prison. When Motley was assigned to develop this new campaign, along with a black employee, she said they couldn’t wait to get started: It was finally a chance to work on an issue critical to communities of color.
But Motley and her colleague say they quickly discovered this campaign was not NOW’s idea. The research and campaign name was lifted directly from Rights4Girls, an organization founded by two young women of color, with support from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.
“It’s one thing if you reach out, ask if you can highlight their work and get involved. But no one at NOW ever had one conversation with them,” said the black employee assigned to the project.
When Yasmin Vafa, co-founder of Rights4Girls, discovered that NOW had co-opted their campaign — from a Google alert she’d set for “sex abuse to prison pipeline” — she reached out and scheduled a meeting with O’Neill. While Rights4Girls now has significant national recognition, at the time the organization consisted only of Vafa and one other employee.
A few minutes into the meeting, O’Neill abruptly left the room to answer a phone call, saying she “had to take it” because it was a reporter, according to Motley, Vafa and the black employee, all of whom were present. “It happened just as I was explaining why it was problematic for a white-woman-run organization to appropriate the work of a women-of-color-led organization,” Vafa said.
The situation didn’t improve when O’Neill returned, Motley said. Vafa asked if NOW might consider financially supporting the work of Rights4Girls; O’Neill refused. Vafa also asked for the opportunity to partner or collaborate with NOW in the future. O’Neill agreed, Vafa said, but never followed up after the meeting.
“Terry essentially talked down to them, pandered to them, belittled their work and their labor,” said the black NOW employee. “All while they were poaching the work of these young women of color.” Vafa and Motley gave similar descriptions of the meeting.
O’Neill says she “regrets” how she acted. “As a privileged white woman, I did not make the time and space to set aside my own perspective and really understand what the young women of color from Rights4Girls were trying to communicate to me.”
AAUW and FMF also seemed to recognize that they had to do more to diversify their platforms. At some point during their time at AAUW, Nelson said, leadership started to talk about the importance of “intersectionality.” Nelson would sometimes challenge the white people who brought up the term, asking them to define what it meant. There were many times, Nelson said, when they would end up explaining intersectionality to people who were making salaries “five or 10 times as large” as theirs.
One major Feminist Majority campaign did put women of color at the forefront. In 1997, FMF launched the “Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls.” The project highlighted the unique struggles that Afghan women faced under the Taliban and after its fall, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for education and other opportunities for women’s empowerment in the region. Feminist Majority was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for the campaign in 2002.
But FMF’s efforts in Afghanistan were shaped primarily by white women, said Anushay Hossain, a South Asian woman who was brought on to lead the campaign in 2002. After leaving FMF in 2003, Hossain returned from 2007 to 2013 as the director of global programs, still involved in efforts related to Afghanistan.
“The whole campaign had a white woman dictating it,” said Hossain, referring to Smeal, who by multiple accounts micromanaged the Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls. Smeal would regularly talk about how FMF was “saving” Afghan women, said Killian McDonald, who is white and worked at FMF as Smeal’s executive assistant from 2018 to 2019.
The campaign is currently led by two Afghan women. But Afghan employees are given relatively little power to shape the campaign’s priorities, McDonald said, seldom taken seriously in discussions about the issues Afghan women face. Afghan staffers would try to explain to Smeal that “Afghan women have autonomy,” frustrated that Smeal depicted them as victims “who have no education,” said McDonald, who overheard these conversations.
The Feminist Majority Foundation “meets frequently with Afghan women in the U.S. and regularly speaks to Afghan women leaders in Afghanistan by phone,” an FMF spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Lily. “Ellie and FMF’s staff have been in repeated and close partnership with Afghan women leaders from the beginning and have the utmost respect for them.”
Hossain sometimes questioned what was driving certain campaign initiatives, many of which came from Smeal and other white women in the organization. In one particular project, Hossain said, FMF sent out swatches of a blue burqa for $5 a piece. The idea was to “make you remember the oppressed women,” who Americans need to “liberate,” said Hossain.
“It was all about Americans going there, lifting the veil, freeing the women,” she said. “It was very much, ‘Look how Muslims treat women.’”
Smeal resisted the idea that many Muslim women choose to wear hijab, according to three former employees. (An FMF spokesperson denied that Smeal criticizes women who choose to wear hijab, protesting only “the forced covering of women.”) When Muslim women wearing hijab came to the office, Hossain said, Smeal would turn to her and say, “Why are they wearing that? I don’t like that.”
Hossain never knew exactly how to respond.
“A lot of Muslim feminists have interpreted that as their choice,” Hossain said. “And [FMF] is supposed to be all about empowering women.”
Employees of color say they rarely have power to shape the institutional priorities at NOW, AAUW and FMF. A similar dynamic played out across all three organizations, former employees say: People of color were concentrated in administrative and organizer roles, perpetuating an extreme power imbalance between the overwhelmingly white leadership and a far more diverse lower-level staff. Most staffers of color cycled in and out within a few years, former employees said, moving on to graduate school or a new job. Many say they were pushed out, forced from their roles for challenging white leadership, or chose to leave when they could no longer tolerate racist behavior from the top, a pattern which has preserved the white-dominated leadership structure of the second wave.
Two of five senior leadership roles at NOW, and two of the six at AAUW, are filled by women of color. (The fifth position at NOW is currently vacant.) Every one of FMF’s six executive and director roles is currently filled by a white woman.
Women of color who do hold top positions are often sidelined and denied any real power, said Ahmad, the NOW board member. When Ahmad was appointed to chair NOW’s committee on the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, coming up next month, she drafted a memo for potential partners that highlighted the racism inherent to the suffrage movement. Van Pelt and some white board members quickly vetoed the memo, Ahmad said, saying it “needs to be more positive."
“That was just one example of how they give [women of color] something, without giving you any power,” said Ahmad. “While on the surface they use all the right vocabulary, when it comes to real power sharing and really centering women of color within the organization, they aren’t able to do that.”
NOW had a mass exodus after Van Pelt was elected in the summer of 2017, with all but three employees who worked at NOW under the former president leaving the organization in the span of a year, including all of the people of color who worked there before Van Pelt took office. (With new leadership, this kind of turnover “happens in similar situations and many organizations,” Van Pelt said. “Some staff decide to stay and some do not.”)
The last two vice presidents at NOW have been women of color, including current vice president Christian Nunes, who is black. But that position has not necessarily translated to real influence. “I thought that I was really going to be able to help this organization,” Nunes told the Daily Beast. “But ultimately I feel like I’ve just been a token.” When Nunes called out racism at NOW, she said, she faced retaliation. She has been kept out of executive meetings, she said, with many of her responsibilities reassigned to white women.
A similar dynamic played out with NOW’s former vice president, Gilda Yazzie, who is Native American. While Yazzie was initially responsible for many budgetary matters, including payroll, Van Pelt slowly stripped her of those responsibilities, denying her access to the computer payroll program and trying to stop Yazzie from discussing payroll issues with other staff members, according to the board letter. Less than a year after taking office, Yazzie was asked to resign. She filed a lawsuit against NOW, claiming that she was racially harassed by Van Pelt — then forcibly pushed out by NOW’s board when she tried to report the treatment. (“Gilda was removed by the board for not doing her job,” Van Pelt wrote in a statement to The Lily.)
As a woman of color at FMF, it was hard to challenge white leadership, said Sherill Dingle, a black woman who worked there from 2017 to 2019. When FMF staffers would bring up instances of racism at the organization, Smeal would often deflect by citing her own participation in the civil rights movement, according to three former employees, reminding staffers that she “marched with Coretta Scott King.”
Conversations about race quickly escalated to “screaming matches,” Dingle said. Five other former staffers said Smeal would often yell at her employees. Shivani Desai, who also worked for FMF from 2017 to 2019, and is South Asian American, says Smeal demonstrated “particularly volatile reactions to young, black women.” (Asked about Smeal’s “yelling,” an FMF spokesperson said, “We at the Feminist Majority Foundation do speak with vigor at times and we have encouraged a free exchange of ideas.”)
Sherill Dingle. (André Chung for The Washington Post)
When news first broke about family separation along the U.S.-Mexico border and images of children in cages began to circulate, Smeal announced that Feminist Majority would take immediate action. To raise awareness, she told staff, a group of FMF employees, including Smeal, would get arrested while protesting. FMF had already discussed the plan with police in advance, Smeal explained, agreeing to the logistics of their arrest and release, according to Dingle and Desai.
Dingle, one of the few black women at FMF, did not immediately understand: Why would they speak with police beforehand? What made Smeal think the police would listen?
“That makes absolutely no sense,” Dingle says she told Smeal and other FMF staff. “In all my life, all the organizing I’ve done, I’ve never heard anything like that.”
Dingle refused to go to the protest. As a black woman, she said, she could not participate in an event where organizers relied on promises from the police. If she got arrested with the rest of the group, Dingle explained, things could go south for her in a way they wouldn’t for Smeal or Dingle’s white manager, Kelli Musick. Her manager wouldn’t listen, Dingle said, telling her, “This is what your job entails.” (While Musick says she doesn’t “specifically remember” saying this to Dingle, she did say that going to protests and rallies was “part of the job” at FMF.)
An FMF spokesperson denied Dingle’s account, stating that Smeal and other FMF employees never spoke with police in advance of this protest. In addition, the spokesperson said, no employee would ever be “impacted negatively” for choosing not to participate. Musick and Desai both remember Smeal saying that she had orchestrated logistics of the arrest with the police.
“They didn’t know their privilege,” said Dingle. “Do you really think I can go to the police right now and say, ‘Hey I’m trying to do a march, I need to be arrested and let go.’ Do you honestly think that would go well for me?”
In another argument, Dingle says she engaged Smeal on the unique ways in which black women experience oppression. She said Smeal responded by highlighting the ways that white women also feel “powerless” and unable to speak up, afraid they might be harmed because they’re women.
“You’re not understanding,” Dingle remembers saying. “I am black, I evoke nothing other than black. That’s just how it is, since the day I came out of my mother’s womb.”
Sherill Dingle. (André Chung for The Washington Post)
An FMF spokesperson said, “We agree that Black women experience more oppression and discrimination than white women. Black women experience racism, white supremacy, sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny. White women experience sexism, patriarchy and misogyny.”
Smeal would often try to highlight various oppression experienced by white women, frequently piping into conversations about women of color by saying, “and white women, too,” said Desai. Smeal regularly complained about the 2016 exit polls that showed 53 percent of white women voted for Trump, claiming that number was “fake.” She would “scream”or “yell” at staffers who brought up this statistic, especially if they were women of color, according to four former employees.
“She hated that poll,” said Monique Alcala, who is Latina and worked at FMF for five months in 2019. “She really hated it.”
The women of color at FMF would talk openly among themselves about the racism they experienced there, said Desai. In August 2019, Desai and a few of her colleagues called a staff meeting to discuss racist incidents within FMF and plans for organization-wide anti-bias training. The women proposed bringing in a diversity expert, who could consult on race issues among employees. Sitting around a table in a conference room, Desai said, women of color shared their experiences, one by one. At least three were crying, Dingle said.
The Lily obtained an audio recording of the last 40 minutes of this meeting. At first, Smeal was receptive to what the women were saying, listening and taking notes, Desai said. But when the employees of color began pushing for Smeal to commit to the logistics around the anti-bias training — asking exactly when they could make it happen — Smeal’s tone completely changed.
“We could talk and talk and talk for five hours a day, but if it doesn’t have a sense of urgency, and people don’t feel like ... ‘We have to fix the racism today, or yesterday,’ it’s not going to get done,” said Joy Ikekhua, a black woman who worked at FMF from January 2019 to January 2020.
“I’m an honest person in this way. We are trying to launch this Virginia campaign, which is a lot of work,” Smeal says in the recording, referring to FMF’s work to ratify the ERA in Virginia, led by both NOW and FMF. “We’re also redoing the website, and it’s a very intense period.”
“I get what you’re saying, Ellie,” said Dingle. “You’re trying to survive and everything like that. But in order to bring new people in, and have the people who are already here feel comfortable, I think this needs to be a priority.”
“I’m just going to be honest,” Smeal continued. “My top priority right now is winning in Virginia. I’ve worked on this Godd--- thing for 50 years, and it’s our only chance. Our only chance. And to not do that, I think, would be a disgrace.”
Several of the women present tried to interject, but Smeal kept going:
“The other thing is, I’m not sure what you want me to do. … We are at war with the Trump administration every day.”
“We’re not going to win the war if the fighters are tired and exhausted,” said Desai. “Physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.”
“I’ve done everything I can,” Smeal said, abruptly announcing an end to the meeting.
Desai and Dingle left FMF within one month. (FMF did not respond to a request for comment on this recording.)
“It was so insulting, so hurtful,” said Desai. “How many women of color have to cry at your organization in order for something to change?"
Desai, Dingle, Ikekhua, Alcala and Hossain all say that Smeal’s behavior contributed to their decision to leave the organization.
It took two weeks to compile the final letter from former staffers to the NOW board. In mid-May 2018, Motley, Imhoff and a black colleague sent texts and made phone calls to a long list of former staffers and interns. Then they shared the Google Doc: a blank page that would become a comprehensive log of all the reasons the board should force Van Pelt to resign.
By the time they were done compiling, corroborating and editing, the document was 22 pages long.
When Imhoff sent the email — from a burner email account, on June 7, 2018 — she said she thought the board would take some kind of action: How could they ignore that kind of specificity?
A few emails trickled in later that day, and the next. Two board members of color thanked the former staffers for their efforts. One urged the board to discuss the issues outlined in the letter in an upcoming meeting.
But then nothing happened.
Many of NOW’s board members have formed their own “clique,” said Ahmad, which includes Van Pelt, with relationships that stretch back decades. Van Pelt and Smeal, in particular, are “good friends,” three former NOW and FMF employees said, both active in the second wave. Working at FMF, Alcala says she avoided meetings attended by both presidents. Together, the two women seemed more empowered to cut off younger women in the room, she said, especially Alcala and other women of color.
“They reinforce each other’s power,” she said. Staffers say that many of Smeal and Van Pelt’s most problematic comments were made at team meetings, so almost everyone was aware of their behavior, including other senior employees, who rarely did anything to stop it.
“These are the dynamics of toxic white feminism,” Alcala said.
It’s easy to list NOW’s accomplishments from the 1960s and ’70s, said Turk, the NOW historian: The organization had a clear set of goals and took tangible steps toward fulfilling them. NOW leadership was nationally recognized as a major force driving feminist reform, said Turk.
In 2020, NOW is far less prominent than it once was, she said, perhaps because it’s “harder to define an agenda.” Many former staff members struggled to articulate exactly what NOW does today.
AAUW faces a similar problem, said Nelson: “There isn’t a clear vision of what the world looks like when their work is done.” Originally, AAUW strove for women’s liberation, Nelson said, but clearly focused on white women’s liberation. Upper-middle-class white women no longer need the kind of help they once did, Nelson said.
“It’s just not going to cut it to do things for well-off white women,” they said. “To be fair, it never cut it, but now it’s just much more obvious.”
It was hard to see so much money flow into NOW after the 2016 election, said Rui Mulligan, who identifies as mixed race and worked at NOW from 2015 to 2018, overseeing some of the organization’s fundraising. In the months following Trump’s election, NOW brought in millions of dollars, according to three former employees, far above the usual fundraising revenue for that period. Donations swelled again in the spring of 2019, after states across the South and Midwest issued abortion bans.
People give to NOW because of its historic cache, said Mulligan. But donors “don’t know what was going on behind closed doors.”
There are so many women-of-color-led organizations making tangible change in marginalized communities, Imhoff said: Any of those organizations could have put that money to better use.
Working at NOW, young staffers said they’d often speculate on how the organization — which once did so much good for women — morphed into what it is today. A few have landed on one particular theory: In the 1960s and ’70s, many of the white women now shaping these veteran feminist organizations — leaders such as Smeal and Van Pelt, but also members in local chapters across the country — felt deeply disempowered. And they were: A married woman could not get a credit card in her own name until 1974. Women could be legally fired for getting pregnant until 1978.
“They carry their own scars and their own feelings of marginalization,” said a former NOW employee, who is black. “But over time, they have not let that go. They have not made room for other women, for new progress, because they’re holding on to the idea that [they are] the oppressed minority.”
Could these organizations change? Is it possible for NOW, FMF and AAUW to refashion themselves into true, fierce advocates for women of color?
Most people interviewed for this article say no. They are cultural relics, Imhoff said, best left to history.
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that a woman could not get a credit card in her own name until 1974. A married woman could not get a credit card in her name until that time. We regret the error.