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Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Legendary Feminist: Catherine East

This article was first published as "Three United States Feminists--A Personal Tribute," Jewish Affairs 53.1 (Johannesburg, South Africa, 1998): 37.

Click on the feminists' names to read more about them.

Catherine East

Catherine East, a native of Barboursville, West Virginia, came to the Washington area in 1939. She began work as a clerk at the Civil Service Commission (now the Office of Personnel Management) and rose in government ranks to serve as executive secretary of the Committee on Federal Employment of President Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women, the Interdepartmental Committee on the Status of Women, and the Citizens' Advisory Council on the Status of Women. She also served as deputy coordinator of the Secretariat for the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year and held senior staff posts with every presidential advisory commission on women from 1962 to 1977. When a feminist came to Washington, she could generally be found staying at Catherine's Arlington, Virginia, home.

Catherine never sought the limelight but did her work behind the scenes and preferred to exert her influence without publicity. She was actively involved in the formation of NOW but remained in the background because she feared it would jeopardize her government position.

After her retirement in the late 1970s, she remained active in women's rights, serving in positions such as women's issues coordinator for John Anderson's presidential campaign and vice-chair of the Virginia Women's Political Caucus.

My most memorable experience with Catherine took place in 1972. It was the result of the efforts of my friend and colleague in the struggle for women's rights, Dr. Margherita Rendel. Margherita, an associate professor in Educational Administration at one of the Institutes of the University of London, is a leading British feminist. She arranged for me to testify at the end of November 1972 before a Select Committee of the House of Lords on the EEOC's experience in implementing Title VII. The House of Lords had referred to this Committee an Anti-Discrimination Bill, introduced by Lady Nancy Seear, which would, among other things, prohibit sex discrimination in employment in Britain. The Committee was reviewing evidence on the existence of discrimination against women in Great Britain and the contribution, if any, that legislation might make in ending such discrimination. Margherita also arranged for me to give speeches before and after my testimony in London, Cardiff, and Glasgow. My husband Roberto would accompany me.

After the arrangements had been made, I began to experience a recurrence of the back pain that had first plagued me the previous year when I was pregnant with my daughter Zia. Over the weeks, as the pain worsened, I continually expressed concern to Roberto as to whether I'd be able to go to London. He continued to assure me that by the time we'd have to leave, I would be fine. One morning, two weeks before our scheduled departure, I could not rise from my bed, and Roberto had to take me to the hospital. Although by that time I had completed three-quarters of my testimony for the House of Lords, it was obvious I would be unable to go. It was too late to cancel or reschedule; flyers had been distributed throughout Great Britain. In desperation, I called Catherine. She came to the hospital, sat at my bedside, and between us, we completed the testimony. Then on two weeks' notice, she left for Great Britain, gave my testimony before the House of Lords, and delivered her own speeches throughout Britain.

In 1975, Parliament passed the Sex Discrimination Act, which prohibits sex discrimination in employment, education, training, and in the provision of goods, facilities, services, and accommodations; and created the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) to administer it. By regulation, roughly similar provisions were established for Northern Ireland. In 1976, Parliament passed a Race Relations Act, almost identical to the Sex Discrimination Act, strengthening the earlier Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1969. My testimony and that of Margherita, Catherine, Irene Johnson of the Canadian Public Service Commission, and a large number of organizations; public demonstrations; and other developments had changed the government's point of view from one of opposition to anti-sex discrimination legislation to one of support. (END NOTE 1)

On August 17, 1996, Catherine died at the age of eighty. I cherish her memory.

© 1998 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes