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Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

My Interactions with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

(This article was originally published on July 29, 2020, on the website of the Cornell Club of Sarasota-Manatee, but is no longer there.)

After graduation from the University of Miami (FL) School of Law in 1957, I came to Washington, D.C. on the Attorney General’s Program for Honor Law Graduates to work for the Office of Alien Property.

I left there in 1959 to work for the National Labor Relations Board, and on October 4, 1965, I began work at my third federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as the first woman attorney in its Office of the General Counsel. The mandate of the EEOC, which had begun operations three months before my arrival, was to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin by covered employers, employment agencies, and labor unions. (Later, discrimination based on age and physical or mental disabilities was added to its responsibilities.)

While at the EEOC, I became an expert in gender discrimination in employment, and it has remained the focus of my life ever since. In 1966, I became one of the co-founders of NOW, the National Organization for Women (NOW).

I left the EEOC in 1973 for jobs in the corporate world outside of Washington, D.C, but returned in 1986 to work as an attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development (HUD).

In 1993, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg began serving as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. She was the second woman to serve on that Court (Sandra Day O’Connor was the first.) and the second Jew to serve on that Court (Louis Brandeis was the first.).

Although I did not know Justice Ginsburg in 1993, we had a number of things in common. I was, of course, not in her class--no one was--but we were both feminist activists living and working in Washington, D.C. We were both petite, mature Jewish women with immigrant or refugee backgrounds; both lawyers with progressive outlooks and we had both attended Cornell University’s undergraduate college. We had also both served on the board of trustees of the National Woman’s Party headquartered in one of the oldest houses on Capitol Hill, then known as the Sewall-Belmont House and today known as the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument.

We had two other connections, but I do not know that she was aware of them. Justice Ginsburg was a patron of an iconic appetizing store on New York City’s Lower East Side called Russ & Daughters. One of Russ’s three daughters, Hattie Gold, was my niece’s mother-in-law, and I knew her.

The second connection involved the documentary called RBG that was a smash hit. On December 20, 2018, Julie Cohen, one of that documentary’s two filmmakers, was in my condo for five hours with her crew to interview me for their next documentary about a feminist friend of mine whose name I am not yet allowed to reveal. That documentary is set for release next year.

In 1965, when I joined the EEOC, and for a number of years thereafter, there was a small number of feminist activists scattered across various federal agencies and private law firms in Washington, D.C., and we came to know each other and often shared information and cooperated on matters of common concern. Of course, I knew who Justice Ginsburg was, and I assume she came to know of me through my work at the EEOC.

Although we never discussed it, Justice Ginsburg and I were given similar advice with regard to concentrating on women's rights in our legal careers. An article by Erin Blakemore entitled "Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Landmark Opinions on Women's Rights" in Inside History online, updated on September 18, 2020, originally May 30, 2018, about the Justice, stated: "Though she had a lifelong interest in gender equality, she was warned that to pursue a legal career that hinged on fighting discrimination against women was a nonstarter. 'The concern was that if a woman was doing gender equality, her chances of making it to tenure in the law school were diminished,' she told the New York Times’ Philip Galanes in 2015. 'It was considered frivolous.' by Philip Galanes, New York Times, Nov. 14, 2015.)

Similarly, I was told by fellow attorneys while I was at the EEOC to leave the EEOC and the field of women's rights as prestige and money in the legal profession came from working for private law firms and corporations. Although neither Ruth nor I took the advice proffered, she became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice and both of us were among 108 American women lawyers chosen by the American Bar Association's Senior Lawyers Division as Women Trailblazers in the Law.

I only met Justice Ginsburg on two occasions. The first was on September 20, 2005, at the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party (NWP). On that occasion, NWP was honoring Tipper Gore for her work in mental health awareness, and I was asked to show the Justice and her husband Marty around the house, and I did so.

The second occasion was at a “Salute to Feminist Lawyers, 1963-1975" on June 9, 2008, at the Harvard Club in New York City. At that time, the Justice and I were among 34 American women lawyers (although she was first among equals) being honored.

I do not recall how it happened, but on that occasion, at lunchtime, I found myself at a small table with the Justice, her husband Marty, and a friend and fellow NOW co-founder Muriel Fox. At lunch, I suggested to Marty and Ruth, individually, that they retire to Sarasota, Florida where I lived. Marty said he had tried that [retirement] and it hadn’t worked for him. Ruth said she wanted to wait until after the next election. (I don’t think either of them was ever interested in retirement.)

That was the last time I saw Ruth, but thereafter I was in touch with her from time to time. When I had an upcoming speaking engagement in the women’s rights field, I’d let her know and she’d either write something nice about me to my prospective audience or send me one or more recent articles she had written for sharing with my audience. For example, Marden Paru, dean of the Liberal Yeshiva in Sarasota, taught a course on Justices Brandeis and Ginsburg some time ago and I was going to speak to his class about Justice Ginsburg. Ruth sent me a couple of her articles for distribution to the class. On another occasion, I asked her if she would send a message to those attending the September 17, 2018, showing of the documentary, RBG, to be followed by a discussion at the Cook Library of New College in Sarasota. Emily Fairchild, then the head of the Gender Studies program at New College, had asked me and several others to lead the discussion following the movie. I expected the Justice to send a message about the movie. Instead, she wrote to those present: “Hope you enjoyed RBG. Sonia Fuentes was in the trenches urging equal citizenship stature for women in the 1970s and is an ideal person to lead your discussion.”

Like people throughout the U.S. and the world, I was stunned to learn of Ruth’s death on September 18, 2020. I knew that death had been stalking her for some time, but she had been so courageous in fighting back every health challenge, I somehow believed she would continue to do so indefinitely. But even she could not do that. My heart goes out to her family and all those across this country and the world who are bereft by her loss. We will not see her like again.

Sonia Pressman Fuentes, Cornell Class of 1950