A Salute to NOW's First Washington, D.C., Interns

by Julie Banks, NOW Intern

We are in the era of internships. Many organizations like NOW have interns who are striving to get hands-on experience in particular fields. But few intern programs have both the challenge and the strong activist roots NOW's does -- as I found out in a surprising way.

I am among 13 spring semester interns at NOW. We're gaining valuable experience not only in day-to-day operations, but by helping to organize important events like the April 14 Fight the Right March in San Francisco and zap actions like the one at the U.S. Supreme Court over women in military academies.

Because of the variety of responsible, concrete activities we get involved with, NOW's intern program has a reputation as one of the best programs in the Washington, D.C., area. Obviously this program didn't spring up overnight. But little did I know that one of the professors supervising my internship helped found it.

Two women blazed the path for interns at NOW back in 1972: Jennifer Hipp and Kee MacFarland. Jennifer was a social work major when she and another student started their quest to become the very first NOW interns in Washington, D.C.

According to Jennifer, she and Kee McFarland "had to break down the doors at NOW, which happened to be a single-room office at the National Press Building, staffed by about three or four full-time workers and headed by Wilma Scott Heide." At that time NOW had multiple offices: the legislative office in Washington, D.C., the public relations office in New York and the national headquarters in Chicago.

Jennifer and the other staff members in 1972 were facing the issues that I have become so familiar with today, especially abortion rights and an Equal Rights Amendment.

Jennifer says that she and the staff "put an enormous amount of focus into getting the ERA passed and fighting Nixon on revenue sharing. Our energy on the ERA is much like your efforts toward abortion rights now."

One of her first assignments was to lobby on Capitol Hill about the adverse affects revenue sharing (sort of an earlier version of block grants) had on women. "The lobbying helped to demystify the legislative process up on the hill," she said. "I learned that the actions on the Hill are not far removed from life."

She vividly remembers why she did not go through with testifying in front of Congress that year: "I knew I was in trouble when Jesse Jackson went before me. I didn't feel like I had enough experience to go after Jesse Jackson. I couldn't follow his act."

Looking back at her internship at NOW, Jennifer said, "It was a terribly exciting experience and a great time to be at the NOW office. We had a great sense of being involved regularly with other organizations. Many people did not even know what NOW was and, as an intern, I was one of the people getting the word out."

Jennifer went on to be the first president of West Virginia NOW and established several chapters in the state. She is now a professor and the chair of the social work department at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Her co-intern, Kee MacFarlnd, went on to become an expert in child sexual abuse, published several books and moved to California.

Today, Jennifer Hipp is not only my professor, but a friend and advisor. For a year and a half we have served together on a board that is trying to develop a women's studies minor.

You wouldn't believe how many feminists there are on my 3,500-person campus, and they are thrilled that I am interning here. They think it's huge.

When I told my two internship advisers I had arranged it, Professor Linda Tate screamed and hugged me. But Jennifer, in contrast, just said it was wonderful and that I didn't know how lucky I was.

But she sure did, only she is so low-key that she didn't mention her own major role in NOW until she and Linda came to the office for a required site visit.

"It really hasn't changed," she said. "It's still as chaotic as the day I was there."

Some of the experiences that Jennifer had as an intern are dramatically different than the experience that I am having today, though. Reminiscing and talking with her is a perfect reminder for me of how valuable this experience is and how lucky I am to be working at the largest feminist organization in the country.

Today, the NOW Action Center is located in the heart of Washington, within view of the White House, and is staffed by 30 women and men.

While Jennifer practically had to beg to get to be an intern, when I called up I was welcomed with the question, "Which department would you like to work in?"

Interns circa 1996 are concerned with defending affirmative action, breaking down the doors that are still shut to women at two state-funded military academies and fighting the right wing.

One of my first experiences was to picket in front of the Supreme Court on the Virginia Military Institute case. A guy who looked like he worked for a messenger service asked me, "So what's the deal here?" When I explained our position, he said, "Cool." Times have changed.

After I graduate, I plan to go to law school eventually to take on cases for women and children.

Being an intern at NOW in 1996 has been one of the most amazing and positive experiences of my life. I can only hope that in 20 years I will be an inspirational force behind another young feminist wanting to do an internship at NOW. Thanks to Jennifer Hipp and the women who founded the National Organization for Women, I am sure that more young women and men will have a great experience as a NOW intern.

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