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Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Eighty-five Years Old in Sarasota County, Florida

At the age of eighty-five, I find myself living in Sarasota County, Florida where I am experiencing the richest phase of my life. I am actively involved as a community and feminist activist, writer, and public speaker.  How did that happen and how does it differ from the lives of women my age in the past?

Sarasota County includes the City of Sarasota, but my condo is outside the city limits and in the county.

I was born in Berlin, Germany in 1928 of Polish Jewish parents who had lived in Germany for many years. Five years after my birth, Adolf Hitler was named Reich Chancellor of Germany.  My brother, Hermann, who was fourteen years my senior, immediately saw the threat Hitler posed to Germany’s Jews and urged my parents to leave Germany.  We left in the summer of 1933, going first to Antwerp, Belgium, and, when we couldn’t get visas to remain in Belgium, we boarded the Red Star Line’s S.S. Westernland, arriving in New York City on May 1, 1934. In 1936, my family moved to the Catskill  Mountains of New York State, where my father, previously in the men’s clothing business, went into the summer resort business.  He built and ran a 25-bungalow colony on fifty acres of land in Monticello, New York.  I  graduated as valedictorian of my high school class in 1946 and went on to Cornell University, from which I  graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1950.

After graduation from Cornell, I could not find a job until I went to business school and studied shorthand. (I’d already taken typing in high school.) After that, I immediately found a job and worked as a secretary in New York City. After several years, I felt I was getting nowhere fast, so in 1954 I began attending the University of Miami (FL) School of Law.  At that time, about 3 percent of the nation’s law school graduates were women.  I graduated from law school first in my class in 1957, and moved to Washington, D.C., where I began work as an attorney with the federal government.  I spent the next twenty years as an attorney with several federal agencies and  another ten years as an attorney and executive with two major corporations.  The most significant work I did, however, involved the following:  I was a cofounder of NOW (National Organization for Women) and the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).

After my retirement in 1993, I did two things that changed the course of my life:  I spent 5 1/2 years researching and writing my memoir, Eat First—You Don’t Know What They’ll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter, which was published in November 1999, and I moved to Sarasota, Florida.

Since that time, I have been busier than ever in my life.  I am a community and feminist activist, writer, and public speaker.I am constantly being interviewed about my historic role as a founder of the second wave of the women’s movement and showered with honors.  

There were several factors that led to my leading the life I have led and continue to lead.  From the age of ten, I felt that there was a purpose to my life, a mission I had to accomplish, and that I was not free as other girls and women were simply to marry, raise a family, and pursue happiness. This feeling arose from three factors in my life:  I had been born only because my mother’s favored abortionist was out of Germany, my immediate family and I had escaped the Holocaust, and I was bright. To me, that meant that I had been saved to make a contribution to the world. I found that purpose when I joined the EEOC and began my involvement in the fight for women’s rights, which continues to this day.

I began coming to Sarasota County in 1994 as a snowbird and then moved here full-time on November 1, 2006.  I came here because I had one friend who had moved here who strongly urged me to visit. As fate would have it, I came to a unique community.  Sarasota County has a population of about 400,000 (with many more people during the winter season) but it has the amenities of a much larger place.  It is known for its culture and art and has every organization and activity one could possibly imagine.  It has a symphony, ballet, opera house, a 20-screen movie theater,  several other theaters (including the unique  Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe), and a senior friendship center.  It has an annual film festival, an annual Jewish Film Festival, and an annual UN Women’s Film Festival. It is home to Florida’s honors college, New College of Florida, and also has the Sarasota-Manatee campus of the University of South Florida.  And, of course, there is the weather.  We do not ever have to worry about snow and ice—although our summers are hot and humid and the threat of a hurricane looms over us. One does, however, have to have the financial wherewithal to live here and enjoy what Sarasota has to offer.

Sarasota is nirvana for senior citizens.  Florida has the greatest proportion of people who are at least sixty-five of any state in the United States. Among Florida’s counties, Sarasota County has the third-highest percentage of residents aged sixty-five and over, the second-highest percentage of residents aged seventy-five and over, and the highest percentage of residents aged eighty-five and over.  As of 2010, over 30 percent of Sarasota’s total resident population was over sixty-five. Nationally, just under 13 percent of the population is over sixty-five.  It is projected that by 2030  40 percent of Sarasota County’s population  will be sixty-five and over. Females significantly outnumber males at older ages, but the gap is narrowing. In the 2010 Census, there were about twice as many women as men beginning at age eighty-nine.

Like others who live here, I am grateful daily to be living in paradise with the full schedule of social and cultural activities in which I am involved.  I work out at the Y, usher for a local theater, belong to a number of organizations, and have a steady round of lunches, dinners, movies, and theater with friends and organizations.

In the past, senior citizens did not lead the kind of life available to them in Sarasota today. My image of a senior in the past is of an elderly man or woman sitting in a rocking chair in the back room of one of their adult children’s homes waiting to die. That is not the life style of the lucky seniors who have the health and finances to live in Sarasota.

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©2014 Sonia Pressman Fuentes