When I Was an Intern at Lilith…

“I think I didn’t know how weird it was when I was 19. When it’s your first real internship, you don’t know anything, so I had no idea that being treated with dignity and respect was so rare and wonderful.” Susannah Goldstein, Lilith intern in 1999, paused to chuckle, and I joined in. She is the fourth woman in one morning to have shared some iteration of this sentiment. I’ve been speaking to the illustrious alumnae of Lilith’s internship program — in effect essentially since the launch of the magazine in 1976 — as a means of connecting with this incredible pool of women as Lilith’s 35th year becomes its portentous 36th, and learning more about what makes this program so unique. These conversations feel especially poignant to me as I, too, am an alum of the Lilith internship.

These woman are scattered across the globe these days, from California to Israel and beyond, studying for their doctorates or teaching graduate students, serving as nutrition coaches and funding social entrepreneurs, birthing children and novels and documentary films. Ask them to consider their time at Lilith, though, and some very clear patterns start emerging. What made their time at Lilith so valuable to them — valuable enough that they were happy to take time out of their busy lives to reminisce on the phone with a total stranger — was, usually, not the hard professional skills that many internships tout. Rather, the respect they received, the honest interest in their ideas and value placed on their thoughts, inspired and empowered them. In short, this is what a feminist workplace looks like.

“I remember Susan Weidman Schneider helping me out… She was a mentoring presence in all aspects — and it felt like a place where feminist values really held sway,” Beryl Satter, intern in 1980, recalled. Rachel Kadish’s recollections were quite specific: “Someone needs to speak to the arts director? You’re the arts director. The toner needs to be changed? You change the toner. It wasn’t just good training for the work at Lilith — it was good training for life, too, understanding that you could play multiple roles. What I remember about the work at Lilith is that it was very democratic and improvised. You never knew what a day would hold.”

It was not only the way responsibility and opportunity were shared — the feminist workplace involved real feminist role models, too, as Elizabeth Michaelson, intern in 1993– 1994, recalls: “There was a major birthday and Susan Schnur gave Susan Schneider a gift showing the maiden/mother/crone stages and told Susan, ‘You’re a crone now.’ I was sort of shocked — you can’t say that to people! But Susan Weidman Schneider seemed to take real pleasure in it, and it was really wonderful for me to see someone take pleasure in the process of aging, of gaining wisdom.”

At a time when the United States is plagued by unemployment and uncertainty, it is certainly refreshing to meditate on the powerful aftershocks of telling young women that they are competent, they are capable, and they are being listened to.