For decades, organizations like the National Organization for Women, Feminist Majority, and the American Association of University Women were heralded as the frontline orgs championing women’s rights. The limits of that “championing” were always clear to women of color: These organizations centered specifically and almost exclusively on the needs of well-educated white women. But as a new report from The Lily highlights, these organizations were particularly toxic as workplaces to Black women, who say they were actively marginalized and belittled by the white women who ran these organizations.
Published on Tuesday, the report talks to 20 former staffers from NOW, FM, and AAUW about their experiences. Much of what they said will sound familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the stories of workplaces that were hostile or exploitive of Black women. Staffers of color were tokenized, “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.”
At NOW, this dynamic was most visible in its singular focus on passing the Equal Rights Amendment, a constitutional amendment that would guarantee legal gender equality for women and men. As The Lily reports, women of color—including NOW’s second president Aileen Hernandez, a Black woman—pushed the organization to think more inclusively about that specific piece of legislation, or expand and diversify its platform.
“You realize that the ERA doesn’t apply to women who look like me,” said Atima Omara, a Black woman who worked on national NOW committees in the mid-to-late aughts. The ERA “doesn’t solve me getting stopped by the police. It doesn’t solve me getting killed in childbirth.’”
According to former NOW workers, organization president Toni Van Pelt not only pushed back against these suggestions, she withdrew her support for the ERA after changes were proposed to actually make it more intersectional. That opportunity came in 2017, courtesy of legislation introduced by Washington Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who is South Asian. According to NOW’s former staffers, Van Pelt withdrew her support in the late stages of the bill, explicitly taking issue with a portion of it that protected women on the basis of “faith.”
“She said she wouldn’t support it because of that phrase,” Rachel Motley, a white former staffer told The Lily. “When I pointed out to her that the Muslim community is being attacked by the Trump administration, she wasn’t concerned.”
And that wasn’t even the worst part of it:
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.
Unfortunately, the exclusionary politics that appeared to dominate these workplaces weren’t limited to their campaigns. As anyone who’s been in a toxic workplace knows, the day-to-day marginalization of nonwhite staffers—dismissing their concerns, efforts, and ideas—took its toll.
At NOW, FM, and AAUW, white women served as the primary decision-makers. And even when Black women and other women of color were placed higher up in the organization, they were not listened to.
Lower-level staffers of color continuously found themselves explaining intersectionality to their superiors, who were making “five or 10 times” their salaries. Black women who served in higher-level positions found their power chipped away at, their concerns dismissed. Among them is Christina Nunes, who currently serves as NOW’s vice president. Nunes told The Daily Beast last month that she ultimately feels as though she’s “just been a token.” After Nunes called out racism at NOW, she was kept out of executive meetings and her responsibilities reassigned to white women.
At FMF, when staffers challenged Ellie Smeal, the organization’s founder about racism at the organization, Smeal would get defensive. She would cite her participation in the civil rights movement marching alongside Coretta Scott King or, when women of color spoke about their specific obstacles, would drill down how oppressed white women were too. Staffers also accused Smeal of yelling at her employees, having “particularly volatile reactions to young, black women.”
Sherill Dingle, a Black staffer who worked at FMF from 2017 to 2019, recounted one particularly horrifying incident surrounding a protest march FMF was organizing around the forced family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2018. It’s a long passage, but every detail is worth noting and preserving:
To raise awareness, [Smeal] 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.)
These stories (and there are many more in the report) point to how second-wave feminism has dug its own grave, not through negligence, but through an active and hostile commitment to excluding the very people—and the very ideas—that would make them relevant to today’s struggles. This is particularly true when evaluating the impact of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, which have been largely decentralized—the result of years of work and engagement done by local activists, many of them Black women.
The question concerning the relevance of NOW, FMF and AAUW, then, is both existential and self-inflicted: When you, as an activist and organizer, are unprepared and unqualified to meet the most urgent political and social moment of the last several years—one that very much affects the group of people you’re allegedly championing—why are you here at all?