Upheaval at National Organization for Women of New Jersey as state leaders resign abruptly

Now-former president cites racism, ageism from some of group’s local leaders

By: - September 2, 2022 7:01 am

Anjuli Mehrotra has headed the National Organization for Women of New Jersey since January 2019. She and seven other state leaders resigned Thursday in a racism- and ageism-tinged power struggle. (Photo courtesy of Anjuli Mehrotra)

The National Organization for Women of New Jersey was thrown into turmoil on Thursday when the group’s president and seven other leaders resigned and accused some leaders and members of NOW’s county-based chapters of name-calling, bullying, and harassment.

The resignations, which mark the second time since 2018 that the group has seen mass resignations among its state leaders, leave the organization without state leadership at a time when women’s rights nationally dominate headlines, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal abortion protections in June.

One local NOW-New Jersey leader characterized the loss of the state leaders as “terrifying.”

Anjali Mehrotra, who has served as NOW’s state president since January 2019, said long-simmering internal tensions had racist and ageist overtones those who resigned could no longer tolerate.

Mehrotra said longtime local chapter leaders — typically white women and men — have excluded younger voices and voices of color. State leaders haven’t been able to “root out the internalized patriarchy and white feminism that have long been at the core of our own organization,” she added.

“The state leaders are interested in moving policy legislation and recognizing that we are facing probably one of the most important elections of our time this November,” Mehrotra said. “And when these things that are, frankly, noise become barriers to doing work, real work — which is what was happening because of the mental exhaustion and the emotional trauma — that’s when we decided that we can’t do it anymore.”

She added: “In my three and a half years with this organization at the state level, that has continued over and over again, and it has just escalated.”

The group has long been plagued by a power struggle between its eight regionally based local chapters and the eight leaders of its state chapter, who members elect every two years.

In 2018, five newly elected state leaders of NOW quit in a dispute over amending the bylaws. But in that case, they hadn’t officially taken office yet, so the organization did an election do-over and elected new leaders, including Mehrotra.

Mehrotra announced the resignation in an email sent to the press on Thursday morning. By lunchtime, the group’s website was updated to show the state leaders as “former” leaders.

Those who resigned, besides Mehrotra, were administrative vice president Saily Avelenda, action vice president Danni Newbury, communications vice president Isha Mehrotra, legislative vice president Linda Weber, membership vice president Joseph Shelley, secretary Ayisha Mapp, and treasurer Katie Brennan.

Because of the resignations, the group will not hold its annual state conference on Sept. 17, Mehrotra said. Members were set to elect new state leaders at that conference.

Mehrotra said she has reached out to national NOW officials for guidance on how “to continue this work in New Jersey in a healthier environment.” National officials will decide whether and how to proceed with elections for state leadership positions, said Mary Ellen Pellington, who oversees nominations for the state NOW-NJ election.

Christian Nunes, the national NOW president, said she fully supports Mehrotra’s and others’ decision to resign, saying racism, harassment, and other toxic behavior targeting women of color are “reprehensible and will not be tolerated.”

“We understand that change takes time, but we will never achieve real progress if we don’t call out those who hold us back,” Nunes said in an email to the New Jersey Monitor. “Leaders who continue to resist change and cannot authentically and passionately support NOW’s core values – which includes racial justice – have no place in our movement.”

National NOW officials had no immediate answers about what would happen with the election for state-level NOW leaders.

“I am pleased that Anjali will remain on the NOW national board, where she will continue to fight for an intersectional feminist future,” Nunes said.

Mehrotra is a familiar, frequent presence in Trenton, where she has lobbied state legislators on everything from reproductive rights to “menstrual equity.” The group’s members also frequently participate in rallies at the Statehouse and around the state on such issues.

One local chapter leader called the resignations “heartbreaking.”

“With Anjali as president, NOW-New Jersey has had a presence at the state level that I don’t believe we’ve ever had before,” said Lynda Fote, president of Ocean County NOW. “What she has been able to do — and model for how to get things done at the state level — has been really fabulous, and losing her, and obviously her officers, is just terrifying.”

The resignations have no impact on the regional chapters, which will continue operating as usual, Fote said.

“What we’re going to miss is that crucial step, which is to take our voice to Trenton,” Fote said. “With this Supreme Court, losing our voice in Trenton is really awful.”

Mehrotra is also leader of a coalition called Equality, Period that fights period poverty and advocates for affordable access to menstrual products. She said she and the others who resigned will continue their advocacy — just in different roles.

“All of these people care about the issues, and we still care about the organization,” Mehrotra said. “We love the mission of this organization, but we are truly, truly people who want to work in an anti-racist, intersectional, intentional manner.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.