At a recent hearing in Washington, D.C., the president of the National Organization for Women made it abundantly clear that her organization would not support a bill to decriminalize sex work in the capital. 

Testifying in front of the D.C. City Council, Toni Van Pelt, the 72-year-old leader of the storied women’s rights organization, claimed the bill would make Washington a “prime international sex tourism destination” and pose an “extreme threat to women and girls.” Sex work, she said, was “the most extreme version of the violent oppression of women.”

Asked whether the local NOW chapter supported her position, Van Pelt replied firmly: “I am representing all the chapters in the National Organization for Women.”

Watching the testimony from home days later, Monica Weeks, the president of the local NOW chapter, was shocked. Her chapter had never declared opposition to the bill—in fact, they were working on testimony in support of it.

“That [was] the most blatant demonstration of disrespect we’ve had in a long time,” she told The Daily Beast. “And honestly they probably don’t even realize it.”

The episode illustrated a growing divide within the feminist movement on whether the sale and purchase of consensual adult sex should be decriminalized. Numerous human rights groups have endorsed the idea, claiming it would make the sex trade safer and curtail discriminatory policing. But women’s organizations like NOW, founded at a time when many feminists considered prostitution inherently demeaning, continue to oppose it.

Internally, however, backlash is brewing. Younger members and women of color told The Daily Beast they are frustrated by the leadership’s refusal to hear them out on the subject. Some have formed private Facebook groups to vent and strategize, while others have fumed on internal listservs and in letters to the board. A task force meant to reach consensus on the issue stalled without a single meeting. 

And the debate only seems to be intensifying. Hours after The Daily Beast reached out to NOW’s national group for comment, Van Pelt sent an email blast to all chapter leaders warning that they “should not speak out in opposition to a national policy in the press.”

“Since the founding of the National Organization for Women in 1966 we have spoken in one voice on the issues critical to women’s equality,” Van Pelt wrote. “It is essential that all chapter leaders and members adhere to positions regarding the issues, public policy and law affirmed by the National Conference or National Board.”

NOW is the largest grassroots feminist organization in the country, with 550 chapters covering every state and the District of Columbia. It has mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to march for abortion access and the Equal Rights Amendment, and spurred the passage of landmark federal anti-discrimination laws. Its PAC has raised millions of dollars for feminist candidates and dolled out coveted election-year endorsements.

Because of this storied history, when NOW takes a stance on an issue, women around the country listen. This year, the group mounted a nationwide campaign against what it called ”sex trafficking and exploitation.” The campaign aimed to “end the demand” for sex work by criminalizing pimps and johns (or in NOW speak, “purchasers of sex acts” and those who benefit financially from the sale of other people for sex.”) A key component of the campaign was opposing the D.C. decriminalization bill. 

The D.C. chapter, however, was not on board. After seeing Van Pelt’s testimony in October, the board fired off a letter to the national organization, blasting the president’s “misleading and dehumanizing language,” and the “breach of autonomy and assertion that this language represents DC NOW’s views.”

“Going forward, we ask that that National NOW modify their language to reflect the terms currently accepted and used in the sex worker community and by progressive organizations that show respect for all women and their choices,” they wrote.

When Van Pelt did not respond to follow-up emails, Weeks forwarded the letter to every chapter leader in the country.

“I’m so done with just staying quiet,” Weeks told The Daily Beast. “We’re just pissed and they’re not going to change. And if they’re not going to change, at least I’m going to be honest.”

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