NOW's Spring 1999 interns attend a party for Gloria Steinem and Ms. magazine after a day of lobbying on capitol Hill for the Violence Against Women Act.
NOW Action Center staff and interns joined the droves of feminist activists from all over the country who came to Washington, D.C., to attend the first Women's Equality Summit and Congressional Action Day on March 15-16. The Summit was organized by the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO) to bring together the group's leaders and members--which represent over 100 groups--to educate both themselves and their congressional representatives about current issues and legislation that will have a grave impact on the lives of women.
During an action-packed internship at NOW, this was definitely one of the most exciting experiences I had, and one I'll never forget.
As participants in the event, some 600 women were treated to motivating speeches from such big names as Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, and the First Lady herself, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Attendees were briefed on issues including child care, pay equity and social security before taking off to the hill to lobby their senators and representatives. The Summit also featured a screening of the Lifetime television documentary on child care, a reception honoring Gloria Steinem's 65th birthday and the launching of the new Ms.Magazine.
For a NOW intern, this was an exciting opportunity to get experience lobbying for bills affecting the lives of women. NOW's Government Relations Director Jan Erickson, briefed summit registrants on hate crimes. At a press conference outside the Capitol on the second day of the Summit, Gloria Steinem raised her voice above the wind to exclaim, "What we have to say to members of Congress is, either you listen or you are not going to be here again."
For most of us interns, however, the idea of marching into the House and Senate office buildings and making demands on our representatives was a bit daunting. Erickson provided the opportunity to get some practice by signing us up for a lobby day with the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), where women with varying experience went to the hill in groups to lobby for the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). "I was really nervous about my impending lobby visit by myself, so I jumped at the chance to go in groups with experienced women. This was like a dress rehearsal, " remarked NOW intern Michelle Greenburg.
After a short briefing at NCADV's tiny basement offices on Capitol Hill, we took off in teams, strangers united by a common cause, to speak with representatives. As I sat in the large, blue offices of Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., whose cherry desk and walls were decorated with elephants, and a young, male Legislative Aide in a suit took down notes, the reality struck me of how far removed Congress is from the lives of the abused women and children who are turned away daily from overcrowded shelters. It was then that I found the courage to speak up and make them listen to and for women. Facts and statistics and stories poured out as if I'd been lobbying all my life, and suddenly, I was ready to take on the Hill alone.
When the first day of the Summit arrived, the interns filed down 16th St to the National Education Association (NEA) for briefings. We heard from Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority and former NOW president, on supporting ratification by the Senate of the United Nations' Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). We were also briefed on protecting Social Security and ending its disadvantages to women; securing affordable, quality child care as a national priority; improving access to health care by increasing funding for family planning; requiring private insurance coverage for contraceptives; and supporting fair pay legislation.
But the best part of all came when Hillary Clinton took the stage. The packed room rose in a single movement and the cheers and shouts and clapping were not quieted, even at the First Lady's request, for what seemed like forever. She gave a moving speech on the effects of Social Security reform on women, and the interrelated nature of all the issues that affect women today. Ms. Clinton said that while these issues hurt women more, they ultimately affect everyone and should really be seen as "human issues." And she dismissed suggestions that advocating them will lead to the "feminization of politics." "Now I'm not against that," she said to our delight and laughter. "Don't get me wrong. But I think it is fairer to say that we are attempting to bring about the humanization of politics."
At the end of our day of lobbying, after everyone had memorized the tunnel system under the capitol and had spoken to more than enough politicians, we were invited to attend a birthday party for Steinem. While there, I had the pleasure of sitting by Betty Friedan, NOW's first president. Many congresswomen and men spoke, telling of their first inspiring encounters with Steinem. The crowd loved her immensely, and I could see why--besides being such an outspoken, brave and dedicated civil rights activist--she was amazingly nice. At the end of the reception, she waited as women poured forward to meet her.
"Even though she had 300 people waiting to meet her, she responded to my request for a photo graciously, saying 'sure!' as she wrapped her arm around me," said Melissa Dupaul, another NOW intern.