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Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

On March 20, 2018, Mary Wilson, president of the Greater Orlando, FL chapter of NOW, put the following write-up by Sonia in the chapter's enewsletter.

How I Became a Feminist

By Sonia Pressman Fuentes 

I arrived in this country as a refugee from Nazi Germany on May 1, 1934, one month short of being six years old with my parents and older brother. I came into a country divided by gender but I did not recognize that at the time. I just accepted that world as I found it. I came into a world where all the significant jobs, money, and power were held by men. Men basically lived in a world outside the home, while women lived in a world inside the home. It  was women's role to get married, become proficient in domestic skills, and raise a family. There were jobs women could hold before marriage--such as sales clerk, secretary, bookkeeper, housekeeper, cook, nanny, librarian, teacher, telephone  operator, typist--or after marriage if their finances required it--or if they were "spinsters." But men held the jobs of corporate CEOs, policemen, firemen, political leaders, school principals, doctors, lawyers, dentists, construction workers, and on and on. It  did not occur to me to protest that division of functions.

However, when I came to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, one of whose responsibilities was to administer a law that prohibited gender  discrimination in employment by covered employers, employment agencies, and unions, and  I saw that for the first year or so, the agency was not administering that particular provision, it got my dander up.

There were two reasons for the EEOC's failure to administer the prohibitions against sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in its early days. I consider one legitimate and the other not legitimate. The legitimate reason was that the sex discrimination prohibitions of the Act raised legal questions the EEOC did not know how to answer. These were questions such as:

  • Did an employer have to hire pregnant women?
  • Did an employer have to hire women for a job when its clients or customers did not want to deal with women in that job?
  • Did Title VII supersede state protective legislation?
  • Were women entitled to equality of benefits on retirement even though women as a class outlived men?

 The EEOC did not know how to answer these questions because there had been no movement immediately prior to the passage of  Title VII indicating how women wanted these questions answered. (There had been a movement for women's suffrage that began in 1848 at Seneca Falls, NY and ended with the achievement of suffrage in 1920, but there had been no similar national movement for other rights thereafter. There had been groups of women who fought for women's rights after 1920 but they never coalesced into a national movement.) 

Furthermore, the prohibition against gender discrimination came into the Act as an amendment passed during the latter stages of debate on the Act, and there was scant debate on how it was to be interpreted.

The illegitimate reason the Commission was not focusing on gender discrimination was that Title VII was passed as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, whose goal was to eliminate  discrimination against blacks. Most of the people at the EEOC had come to the agency to fight discrimination against blacks and they did not want the Commission's resources diverted to issues of gender discrimination.

 I saw this and it became my mission to turn it around.

 I was so frustrated with the EEOC's failure to focus on women's issues that I told Betty Friedan at the end of 1965 or early in 1966 in the privacy of my office at the EEOC that what this country needed was an organization to fight for women like the NAACP (National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People) fought for its constituents. Then at a meeting in DC in June 1966 of the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women, 28 women signed up to start NOW because they were angry at having been told they didn't have the authority to pass resolutions involving the EEOC (one federal agency can't tell another one what to do).

At a second meeting on Halloween weekend in 1966, another 21 men and women, of whom I was one, became co-founders of The National Organization for Women.

But where did my assurance that men and women were equal and should be treated equally (i.e. Feminism) come from?  I must confess that I do not know. I can only guess that it was innate.

©2018 Sonia Pressman Fuentes