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New NOW president found activist roots in Pinellas

Toni Van Pelt was elected president of the National Organization for Women.
Toni Van Pelt was elected president of the National Organization for Women.
Published Oct. 11, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — When Toni Van Pelt got started in activism, Twitter wasn't a driving force of change and being labeled a feminist had more of a stigma, but the recently elected president of the National Organization for Women learned many formative lessons about feminism in Pinellas County.

Van Pelt, 69, who went to Madeira Beach Junior High School and Seminole High School, said she remembers as a young child being struck by a sense of unfairness toward women's rights.

As a 7-year-old in Ohio, her mother's life was threatened by her fourth pregnancy and her father had to go before a judge to get permission for sterilization.

"My mother's life was too important to me as a child," she said. "Women's reproductive health care has been under attack as long as I've been alive, and even before that."

Growing up she read Ann Landers' column religiously.

"That's probably where I learned how to question authority," Van Pelt said.

She began working as a travel agent and was arrested at age 20 for providing another woman with the phone number for an abortion provider shortly after she herself had received an illegal abortion.

She had been watching Perry Mason and knew when the police came, she would be all right.

"I was not going to be bullied," Van Pelt said. "I knew my rights. I didn't feel scared. I didn't feel intimidated. I just felt angry. I just felt they were trying to take advantage of my youth."

When Van Pelt was 22, she married her husband, Jack, whom she met in Cleveland, where he played in a band.

"At that point, it wasn't something we discussed, but from time to time I'd hear her make a comment that would lead me to believe this is something that's going to be fairly important to her," said Jack Van Pelt, also a NOW member.

When their daughter Margo was born in 1975, Jack said he became more aware of the need for activists and Toni became more politically involved.

"I was pretty unaware of the issues that women face, particularly back then," he said. "I was kind of oblivious to what was going on. It didn't really hit me until we got married and had a daughter. When she was being raised and got in the school system, then I realized just how much of a problem women faced."

Margo Van Pelt, 42, said her mother raised her to never be dependent on anyone. Margo had her own bank account for her allowance by age 12 and said her mom made sure she settled accounts and wrote checks out for her dance and music lessons at the end of every month.

"That was not something I wanted to do, but I appreciate it more now," Margo said. "When you're younger you just want to fit in. To have an outspoken mom can be challenging at times. But I have been extremely proud of her. She's always fought for equality for everybody. When she ran for president and won, that was probably the proudest moment of my life."

When then-Gov. Bob Martinez expressed support for the Webster Decision in 1989, which allowed states to impose their own restrictions on abortion after Roe vs. Wade, Toni Van Pelt joined her local chapter of NOW. One of her first actions was marching along with thousands of women to Tallahassee, proclaiming Martinez a one-term governor.

She eventually became state president of NOW.

This summer, Van Pelt was elected national president at a conference attended by more than 500 activists from across the country.

"Toni will have her work cut out for her, but there is never more need for the protection of women's rights than there is now," said Marcia Cohen, who worked with Van Pelt at Florida NOW and will serve as her legal counsel nationally.

Cohen said she and Van Pelt worked together on several issues in Pinellas, including a case against Bayfront Medical Center, which stopped performing abortions after joining BayCare, a system that included some Catholic hospitals.

Van Pelt said in her lifetime, the face of feminism has changed, becoming more inclusive to LGBTQ individuals and people of color. Now, more than ever, she said, organizations like NOW take on a renewed importance.

"With this election, we've seen an increase in membership and activism," she said. "People are anxious to become activists, anxious to step up and take responsibility."

Organization, she said, is something that NOW can provide to young activists.

"We're iconic," she said. "We're the largest grassroots women's organization in the nation and will continue in that role. I think what NOW brings to new activists is training structure. New tactics."

But newer activists, she said, have much to teach older activists as well.

"I've really seen the way we move our policy and change public policy is with social media," she said. "Twitter activism is really important. Especially with that guy in the White House."

Jack Van Pelt said Toni's new role is one that she is well-suited for.

"If nobody pushes for equality for women, women will be in the same position they are in now," he said. "I think she's going to make a huge difference in the political arena we're in now. Everyone's running on emotion rather than reason and logic. You need someone like her in that position."

Toni said she's hopeful that the energy from new activists is sustained.

"I think what's brought me to this point is hope and that I've seen so much progress in my lifetime," she said. "These are super dangerous times."

Contact Divya Kumar at dkumar@tampabay.com. Follow @divyadivyadivya.

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