Citing health concerns, the president of the National Organization for Women stepped down Sunday, amid a flurry of allegations of racism at the nation’s oldest and largest feminist organization.
In an email to the NOW board, state presidents, and staff on Sunday night, President Toni Van Pelt announced she would be stepping down with two weeks’ notice effective Aug. 28. Vice President Christian Nunes will take her place, and the board will begin the process of appointing a new vice president.
In her email, Van Pelt said she had been struggling with a “very painful health issue” over the last year and that her doctor had “implored me for months to stop working.”
“I have been ignoring my doctor’s advice and my health for too long, so I have made the very hard decision to retire and step down as President of NOW,” she wrote.
Van Pelt’s resignation comes on the heels of an internal investigation into allegations of racism and a toxic work environment at the storied feminist group. Ten minutes after Van Pelt’s resignation email, the same group of NOW leaders received an email saying the internal investigation had uncovered “governance issues and evidence of a toxic work environment.” Allegations of racial discrimination and retaliation, the email said, were not substantiated.
“NOW is committed to addressing these issues and to working together to move forward and to fight for the equality of all women,” the email said.
Florida President Kim Porteous, one of 26 chapter leaders who have called on Van Pelt to step down, said she was thrilled with the news of the president’s resignation but concerned by her explanation.
“To hear that Toni is stepping down for health issues is offensive,” she said. “We cannot move forward with restorative justice by covering up racism or making excuses for people to leave.”
A Daily Beast investigation published in June revealed allegations of racism reaching the highest levels of the organization. Interviews and internal documents showed that Van Pelt was accused of racist behavior by more than 15 former NOW staffers and interns and that her former vice president, Gilda Yazzie, had filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the organization. Among other things, Van Pelt was accused of telling staffers that she only chose Yazzie, who is Native American, as her running mate because she needed a woman of color to win.
In the wake of that investigation, Van Pelt sent an email to 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.”
But in the weeks following, six more former board members and employees—including Van Pelt’s current vice president, Christian Nunes—came forward to accuse Van Pelt of disrespecting and ignoring women of color, and making racially insensitive statements. Two of the three staff members who left NOW this year told The Daily Beast their exits were due in part to how Van Pelt treated staffers of color. (In one instance, a former staffer said, Van Pelt brought employees of color to tears during a diversity training session.)
Twenty-six of the 35 NOW state chapters had signed on to a letter asking Van Pelt to resign, and several had submitted their own. The entire Washington, D.C. and Twin Cities boards also quit in protest. The organization’s head of college students resigned last month, saying in an email to The Daily Beast that “the organization’s actions have completely tarnished my work among many others.”
Nine of the 15 national board members had also called for Van Pelt’s resignation, setting off a tense showdown between the self-titled “Radical Nine” and Van Pelt’s supporters. The group needed three more votes in order to force Van Pelt out of her position—a feat they were not able to achieve despite continued pressure from state chapters. The same nine members were recently subjected to an internal grievance process that they claimed was intended to silence them.
“There is a real strong push to keep us from speaking up, and we cannot be silent anymore,” board member and Arizona state Sen. Victoria Steele said at the time. “If we allow this to be silent then we’re complicit in racism.”
Featured and Top Image Courtesy Of NOW