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  • Stories & Articles by Sonia

Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

From Immigrant to Feminist: My Role in the Women's Rights Movement

I was born in Berlin, Germany, to a family that also included my parents and my brother, Hermann, who was 14 years older than I. My parents were Polish but had lived in Germany for over 20 years and my father was in the men's clothing business there.

In 1933, when I was five years old, we had to leave Germany to escape Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust. We spent a number of months in Antwerp, Belgium, and then boarded a ship for the United States. 

We docked in New York City on May 1, 1934. Except for Hermann, none of us knew a word of English. My parents at that time were both about 40 years old, my father had never gone to school and did not know how to read and write in any language except that he could read printed Yiddish. We wondered how we would make a life for ourselves in this new land. 

Two years ago, I was one of five women inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame, followed by a reception in the governor's mansion in Annapolis. I want to share with you tonight some of my feelings and experiences during my journey from that dock in New York City to the governor's mansion in Annapolis. 

When we arrived in New York, we first settled in the Bronx and that's where I learned to speak English. Our apartment was in a building that was built in a semi-circle around a small garden. I would stand in the garden listening to the other children at play, and whenever I caught an unfamiliar word, I'd run upstairs, repeat it to Hermann, and he'd give me the German equivalent. 

A month after our arrival, I turned six and started kindergarten. 

My father initially returned to the business he'd been in Germany. He opened a men's clothing store in Manhattan with a partner. But he didn't like the pace of life in New York City, and so we moved to the Catskill Mountains of New York State, a resort area about 100 miles from New York City-a place we'd visited briefly on a summer vacation. There my parents went into the summer resort business, a business my father had never been in before and about which he knew absolutely nothing.

Initially, my parents rented and ran a rooming house in a village called Woodridge, and then we moved to the larger nearby town of Monticello, where my father built and ran a 26-bungalow colony. Because my parents weren't fluent in English, from childhood on, I was involved in their business dealings. I drafted the rental contracts for the rooming house and the bungalows and was an active participant in their business lives. I'm sure that was a factor in my becoming a lawyer years later. 

An immigrant is defined as a person who "comes into a new country, region or environment, especially in order to settle there." The operative word in that definition for me is "new." It's challenging and exciting to do something new, something different, something everyone else isn't doing. But it's also scary to embark on a new venture. So to be an immigrant is to be continually caught in the tension between the excitement and fear of being in a new situation. 

Immigration has a long history going back to the Bible. I was reminded of this last month when I heard Bruce Feiler, the author of a new book called Abraham, talk about Abraham, who is a central figure in three great religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Feiler, who has spent much of his adult life traveling to foreign countries and writing books about his experiences, said that at his bar mitzvah when he was 13 years old he read a passage from the Bible, which has guided him throughout his life. That passage, in the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, chapter 12, refers to the time when G-d spoke to Abraham and commanded him to: "Go forth from your land, from your birthplace and from your father's home to the land that I will show you." Often, to achieve our maximum potential, and sometimes to save our lives, we have to go forth from our birthplaces to strange and foreign countries. 

It is a wrench to leave the country of your birth and the feeling of dislocation never leaves you. Sir Walter Scott said it well in his poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel when he wrote: 

Breathes there a man with soul so dead, 
Who never to himself hath said, 
This is my own, my native land! 
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd 
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd, 
From wandering on a foreign strand! 

To be an immigrant is to constantly reflect on who you are, where you come from, and how you are different from those around you. 
I'm an American citizen-but I wasn't born here so I'm not totally an American. I'm certainly not a German either. 

When I see photographs or movies about Germany or hear German songs, I wonder who I would have been and who I would have become if Hitler hadn't caused my family to leave the country of my birth. That is, of course, a speculation to which one can never have an answer. But it is the kind of speculation that haunts immigrants. 

I became an immigrant at the age of five-and have remained one all my life. The fact that I left the country of my birth and came to the United States has colored everything I've been and done since then. 

The effect of my being an immigrant had many facets. First of all, it made me different from most of those with whom I came in contact after I arrived here. Actually, today more than 40% of all living Americans-over 100 million people-can trace their roots to an ancestor who came through Ellis Island. The influx of immigrants to the United States between 1892 and 1924, during which time 12 million immigrants were processed at Ellis Island, was the largest human migration in modern history. 

But I didn't know that when I was a child. What I knew was that I was different from my classmates. I had European parents and was European myself. My classmates in the Catskill Mountains of New York State were all born in this country, as were their parents, by and large. My parents spoke a foreign language at home and they had ideas and customs that differed from those of the parents of my classmates. My mother sent me to kindergarten wearing knee high hose; I longed to wear ankle socks like my American classmates. 

My parents were also older than the parents of my classmates because my mother was 36 when I was born. I was different in other ways, too. I wore glasses for nearsightedness and astigmatism from the age of eight. In Monticello, we lived out of town so I could not easily get together with my classmates after school. In effect, I had no siblings at home because my brother, Hermann, married when I was 10 years old and left home. I had no close cousins with whom to play and no grandparents in this country. 

And I was Jewish. When I was growing up in the 1930s and '40s, being Jewish wasn't what it is today. Today it's chic to be Jewish or to be a member of another ethnic minority. Back then it set you apart from the mainstream of the culture. I remember feeling particularly excluded at Christmas time-the beautiful Christmas trees, the lights, the carols, the exchange of presents, the family gatherings-all that was not for me. I was the outsider. That's what immigrants are. They are outsiders to the culture. Ultimately, I became a writer. Writers, too, tend to be outsiders. So they can look at the culture and see it from a vantage point that differs from that of those who are an integral part of it. 
I was an outsider in other ways, too.I became a lawyer in 1957 when 3% of the law school graduates in this country were women. I chose to have a career when most women opted for marriage and a family. I got married at the age of 42, twenty years after most of my contemporaries had gotten married, and I gave birth to my daughter when I was 43½-when most of my friends' children were in college. And even when I retired, I chose a different route-instead of relaxing, I embarked upon a career as a writer and public speaker. Being an immigrant had something to do with all that. 

Because I escaped from the Holocaust, I felt that I was not free as other girls and women were to simply seek happiness through marriage and family. I felt I had been saved for a purpose and that there was something I needed to do with my life to contribute to society. 

These feelings led to my attending law school in 1954, taking a job with the newly-created Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in Washington, D.C. in 1965, and becoming a founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. I concluded that the contribution I could make to society was to fight employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Minorities and women in this country were set apart, treated differently, and discriminated against-all conditions natural to immigrants. 

Although I became a citizen on my father's citizenship papers five years after our arrival, I was never comfortable with the fact that I did not have my own papers. So while I was a student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in the '50s, I applied for my own papers. Thereafter, there was a ceremony just for me where I was given my own citizenship papers. That was quite a thrill. I have always felt that I appreciate the privilege of living in this country more than those who were born here and I have never, ever taken it for granted. 

I made a wonderful discovery when I was researching my memoir, Eat First-You Don't Know What They'll Give You: The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter. It was my recollection that the ship on which we came to the U.S. was the Red Star Line's S.S. Westernland. My Parents used to have a little male doll in a navy blue uniform and white cap in our house and I remembered that the label on his cap said, "S.S. Westernland." But that doll got lost, and I wasn't sure my recollection was accurate. 

Then a friend told me that the manifests (passenger lists) of most ships that arrived in the United States were at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. 

I went to the Archives and was told that the information on the manifests was on microfiche. I got the microfiche for May 1934, inserted it into the viewing machine and looked for the name Pressman, but I could not find it. I did not know whether that was because the microfiche was so unclear or because I didn't know the way the manifests were organized. So I asked an Archives technician who was standing nearby, if he could help me. His name was Dan Law and he has been a friend of mine ever since. When he came over to help me, Dan told me that some of the michrofiche was old, had deteriorated, and, therefore, was hard to see. He sat down at the machine and asked me for my brother's first name, explaining that the manifests were organized in terms of the passengers' first names. After I gave him Hermann's name, he asked if I knew how old he was in May of 1934. "Of course," I said. "He was 19." 

"Here he is," said Dan. 

The information on the microfiche allowed him to locate the manifest in a book of manifests. He showed it to me and said, "Would you like to have a copy?" Would I? Dan ran off a copy for me and then I held in my hand a copy of the manifest of the S.S. Westernland with my parents' names on it, Hermann's name, my name--and even that of my grandmother Udel, who was not on the ship but on whom the ship had a record. 

When one thinks about immigration, the two symbols that come to mind are the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. 

Next to the flag, the Statue of Liberty is our country's most famous symbol for freedom and has been referred to as the most famous immigrant ever to come to this country. It was a gift to the U.S. from the people of France in recognition of the bonds formed between our two countries during the Revolutionary War, as a lasting memorial to independence, and to show that France was also dedicated to the idea of human liberty. 

For many immigrants, the statue was their first sight of America. 

When I visited the statue years ago, I read again the poem on the bronze plaque at its base, the poem that is almost as famous as the statue itself. The poem, entitled "The New Colossus" and written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus, ends as follows; 

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door. 

More recently, in 1996, my daughter and I took the ferry at Battery Park in New York City for the trip to Ellis Island. 

From 1892 to 1924, Ellis Island was the principal federal immigration station in the United States for passengers traveling in third-class. Third-class was also called steerage because those passengers were housed on the lower decks of the ships where the steering mechanism had once been housed. These immigrants traveled in crowded and often unsanitary conditions near the bottom of the steamship with few amenities, often spending up to two weeks seasick in their bunks during rough Atlantic Ocean crossings. They traveled in terror that during their examinations at Ellis Island they would be found to have a contagious disease or considered likely to become a public charge or an illegal contract laborer and they would returned to their countries of origin. Actually, only 2 percent of the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island were turned back--but that translated to over 250,000 people whose hopes and dreams turned to tears. 

If you have an opportunity to visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, I recommend your doing so. They are very moving places to see. One of the outdoor exhibits at Ellis Island, the American immigrant wall of honor, honors America's immigrants regardless of when they immigrated or through which port they entered. The wall is currently inscribed with over 600,000 names. You can see that wall and those names on the Internet. 

Immigration to this country and to the DC area has changed a great deal since those days, particularly since the 1990s. Today more than 800,000 of our region's 5.5 million residents are foreign-born, the biggest proportion since the Census Bureau began keeping tabs in the 1800s. One in six area residents is foreign-born. This is part of a larger American story. One in 10 U.S. residents today is foreign born. There's an informative article about Washington's new immigrants in last month's issue of the Washingtonian magazine and I commend it to you. 

Let's move now from my status as an immigrant to my involvement in the women's rights movement. I mentioned earlier that my parents had built and run a bungalow colony in Monticello, New York. I graduated from high school there, went on to Cornell University, worked in New York City for four years, and then went to law school at the University of Miami, Florida. I graduated from law school in 1957 and went to work for the federal government in Washington, D.C., because at that time the government was hiring women lawyers, while private law firms and corporations generally were not. After working for the Department of Justice and the National Labor Relations Board, in October 1965, I joined the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission-EEOC-as the first woman attorney in its office of the general counsel. 

The EEOC, which had begun operations only three months before I joined it, was responsible for enforcing a new law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When I came aboard, that law prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin by employers, labor unions, and employment agencies. Some years later, age discrimination and discrimination against persons with physical or mental disabilities were added. 

In 1965, few Americans were aware that there was such a thing as sex discrimination. When I mentioned "women's rights" in my early speeches, the response was laughter. Words like "sex discrimination" and "women's rights" hadn't yet entered the nation's vocabulary. 

What was our country like in 1965? Basically, men and women lived in two different worlds. By and large, a woman's place was in the home. Her role was to marry and raise a family. If she was bright, common wisdom had it that she was to conceal that brightness. She was to be attractive-but not too attractive. She was not to have career ambitions, although she could work for a few years before marriage as a secretary, saleswoman, schoolteacher, telephone operator, social worker, librarian, or nurse. It was expected that she would be a virgin when she married. When she had children, she was to raise them differently so that they, too, would continue in the modes of behavior appropriate to their sex. If she divorced, which reflected poorly on her, she might be awarded alimony and child support-although it was unlikely that she would actually receive the monies for more than a few years. If she failed to marry, she was an old maid, relegated to the periphery of life. 

Married women could work outside the home only if dire household finances required it. Under no circumstances were they to earn more money than their husbands. 

Women were not to be opinionated or assertive. They were expected to show an interest in fashion, books, ballet, cooking, sewing, knitting, and volunteer activities. Political activities were acceptable as long as they were conducted behind the scenes. 

Of course, not all women were able to fit into this pattern, and there were always exceptions. But most women did what they were told because society exacted a high price from deviants. 

Men, on the other hand, were the decision-makers and activists. They were the ones who became presidents, legislators, generals, police chiefs, school principals, and corporate executives. They were the heads of their households, and their wives and children were expected to defer to their wishes. Men were expected to take the initiative in dating, to have sexual experiences before marriage, to propose marriage, to bear the financial burden for the entire family, and to have little or nothing to do with running their households and raising their children. It was assumed that they would be insensitive, uncaring, and inarticulate-and interested in activities such as sports, drinking, gambling, extramarital affairs, and making money. 

Most men did what they were told, too. 

This picture of our society was true for most of the population. There were, however, other dynamics at play in minority communities. Historically, for example, more African-American women than men attended college. But for most Americans, this was the climate in which the commission and I, as a staff member, were supposed to eliminate sex discrimination. 

Not only was the country uninterested in sex discrimination, so were most of the commissioners, officials, and staff at the EEOC. At that time, there were 100 permanent employees at the commission and most were there to fight discrimination against African Americans. They didn't want the commission's limited staff and resources diverted to issues of sex discrimination. 

The country and the EEOC were, however, in for a shock. In the commission's first fiscal year, about 37 percent of the complaints filed alleged sex discrimination. These complaints raised a host of new issues that were more difficult than those raised by the complaints of race discrimination. 

In the area of sex discrimination, the EEOC moved very slowly and conservatively, or not at all. I found myself increasingly frustrated by the unwillingness of most of the officials to come to grips with the issues, and to come to grips with them in ways that would expand employment opportunities for women. 

Because I was always raising the issue of sex discrimination, my boss, the general counsel, called me a "sex maniac." I became the staff person who stood for aggressive enforcement of the sex discrimination prohibitions of the act, and this caused me no end of grief and frustration. 

During my early days at the commission, a writer came to the EEOC. She had become famous through writing a book in 1963 called The Feminine Mystique, which dealt with the frustrations of women who were housewives and mothers and did not work outside the home. Now, she was interviewing EEOC officials and staff for a second book. Her name was Betty Friedan. 

When we met, Betty asked me to reveal problems and conflicts at the commission. As a staff member, however, I did not feel I could publicly speak out about the commission's dereliction, and I did not tell her what was happening with regard to women's issues. But when she came a second time, I was feeling particularly frustrated at the commission's failure to implement the law for women, and I invited her into my office. I told her, with tears in my eyes, that the country needed an organization to fight for women like the NAACP (National Association for Colored Persons) fought for African Americans. 

Thereafter, in June of 1966, the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women met in Washington, D.C. The attendees were enraged when the leadership told them that they did not have the authority to pass a resolution demanding the enforcement of Title VII for women and the reappointment of EEOC Commissioner Dick Graham, who was a feminist. As a result, at a luncheon at the conference Betty Friedan and a small group planned an organization that subsequently became NOW whose purpose, as written by Betty on a paper napkin, was "to take the actions needed to bring women into the mainstream of American society, now, full equality for women, in fully equal partnership with men." By the end of the day, everyone at the conference who wanted to join had tossed $5 into a war chest and now had 28 members. Those 28 were NOW's original founders. 

Another twenty-six, of whom I was one, were added that October at an organizing conference in Washington, DC. We met in the basement of the Washington Post building and adopted a statement of purpose and skeletal bylaws. 

Most of us did not know each other. One of the realities of those days was that there was no national network whereby women and men interested in women's rights could come to know each other and work together. What we had in common was a frustration with the status of women and a determination to do something about it. Women's rights was an idea whose time had come. 

As a result of pressure by NOW, which filed lawsuits, picketed the EEOC and the White House, and mobilized public opinion, the EEOC began to take seriously its mandate to eliminate sex discrimination in employment. It issued guidelines and decisions that prohibited sex-segregated advertising columns and, with narrow exceptions, required that all jobs, including jobs as flight cabin attendants, had to be open to men and women alike. It ruled that a woman could not be refused employment because of the preferences of her employer, co-workers, clients, or customers, or because she was pregnant or had children. A woman who needed time off in connection with pregnancy, childbirth, or after the birth of a child was entitled to the same benefits of sick pay, leave, and pay during leave that her employer provided for employees in general who requested time off for illness or other reasons. 

State laws that prohibited the employment of women in certain occupations, and limited the number of hours they could work and the amount of weight they could lift were superseded by Title VII. Laws that required benefits for women, like seats, restrooms and rest and lunch breaks, could be harmonized with Title VII by providing the same benefits to men. 

Men and women doing substantially equal work were entitled to equality in pay and other benefits, including insurance, pension and retirement benefits. They also had the right to be free of sexual harassment on the job. 

Men also used the remedies provided by Title VII, although to a much lesser extent. They complained when they were excluded from traditionally female jobs, such as nursing, or were prohibited from wearing beards, mustaches, or long hair on the job. 

NOW was the first organization formed to fight for women's rights in the mid-'60s, but it was followed by many others. New laws, executive orders, and municipal ordinances were passed and issued that prohibited sex discrimination and new government agencies were created to enforce those laws. 

Discrimination based on sex or marital status in the sale and rental of housing and in the granting of credit was prohibited. Title IX of the education amendments of 1972 prohibited educational institutions, from preschools through colleges and universities, that received federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex against students and all employees, including administrative personnel and faculty members. One of the effects of Title IX has been the requirement for equality in expenditures for school athletic programs. 

Due to all this activity, the American public became aware that there was a new national priority: equal rights for women. 

Where are we today? 

Our society has undergone a massive change. 

Women are now found in large numbers in professional schools and in the professions, and, to a much lesser extent, in executive suites and 
legislatures. They work at a host of technical and blue-collar jobs previously closed to them. In 1976, women were admitted to West Point and our other military academies, a development that was unthinkable before the women's movement. 

Women-owned businesses are now one-third of all businesses in the united states and employ one out of five American workers. Over six hundred colleges and universities, including this one, have women's studies programs. 

The effects of Title VII have spilled over to every area of our society. Laws have changed women's rights with regard to abortion, divorce, alimony, child custody, child support, rape, jury service, appointments as administrators and executors of estates, sentencing for crimes, health care, and admission to places of public accommodation, such as clubs, restaurants, and bars. Our spoken language has changed, and work continues on the development of gender-neutral written language in laws, textbooks, religious texts, and publications of all sorts. 

In 1984, eighteen years after the founding of NOW, Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman vice-presidential candidate on a national party ticket, and in 1993, Janet Reno became the first woman attorney general of the United States. 

A little-known law, a relatively small organization, the developments in this country, and similar movements worldwide have completely changed the face of this country and are well on their way to changing the face of the world. The increase in the number and proportion of women who work has been called the single most outstanding phenomenon of the twentieth century. 

We've achieved a lot, but much remains to be done-and new problems face us. Women today have to deal with new realities, such as combining a demanding position with marriage and raising a family, and finding affordable, quality household help and child care. Women increasingly find themselves in the sandwich generation--having to be the caretaker both for their children and their parents. 

Women are still subject not only to sex discrimination, but if they are older women, women of color, or have disabilities, they may be the victims of multiple forms of discrimination. 

In the year 2000, year-round full-time women workers earned $.73 for every dollar earned by men. For African American and Hispanic women, the wage gap is much greater. 

Women are still far from being equal in political and professional life. In the U.S. Congress, thirteen of our hundred senators are women; that's only 13%. We have 62 women in the House of Representatives-only 14%. 

No woman has ever served as president, vice president, speaker of the House of Representatives, or majority leader of the Senate. Women remain underrepresented in corporate boardrooms and executive suites and in top positions in academia and unions. 

The Equal Rights Amendment-ERA-to our constitution has yet to be ratified by the requisite number of states. 

Sexual harassment in the workplace remains a fact of life and student-to-student sexual harassment appears to be on the increase. Congress has not yet seen fit to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and only a handful of states and cities have outlawed such discrimination. Thus, gays and lesbians are, by and large, not a protected class of people in this country. 

Other issues affecting American women today are poverty, homelessness, lack of adequate health care, and violence. Poverty is a woman's issue because women and children make up 76% of the poor in the U.S. A majority of minimum wage workers are women. 

A 1999 report from the CIA estimates that 50,000 women and children are brought to the U.S. annually, illegally smuggled across borders to be used as restaurant workers, domestic servants and sweatshop laborers, as well as prostitutes and sex slaves. 

When we look past the U.S to the rest of the world, the status of women is often shocking. In third world countries, culture, religion, and law often deprive women of basic human rights and sometimes relegate them to almost subhuman status. 

Violence against women and restrictions on their freedom are worldwide problems. Female genital mutilation continues, as do polygamy, trafficking in, and kidnapping, women and girls, stoning women to death for adultery, raping women and children, child marriages, honor killings, abortions of female fetuses, and female infanticide. In India and Asia, especially South Asia, where women have the lowest status in the world, the poverty and powerlessness of women are combining to make them increasingly vulnerable to AIDS since they are in no position to negotiate safe sex. As a result, some research groups are now calling aids a woman's disease. 

Hunger has also been called a woman's issue. 826 million people, most of them women and children, throughout the world and particularly in developing countries, do not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs. 

Another problem in developing countries that particularly impacts women and children is the lack of access to clean and affordable water and proper sanitation services. Scarcity of water as well as skyrocketing water prices put poor women in situations where they are obliged to walk long distances to find cheaper water and use unsafe water from hand-dug wells. Over 2 million people, mostly children, die annually from diarrheal diseases related to lack of access to clean water. 

On another health issue, last month the Boston Globe reported on a study by the Global Health Council, which concluded that inadequate reproductive health services in developing nations are linked to a large number of deaths among pregnant women. The report attributes the mortality rate among pregnant women throughout the world to a lack of adequate reproductive health services caused by a steep drop in international family planning donations from the U.S. and other wealthy nations. 

Despite these serious problems, the changes we've seen in the past thirty-seven years have been breathtaking. 

In thinking about my life and the women's rights movement, the common thread that runs through both is change. Life is change-changes that happen to us over which we have no or very little control. And changes that we ourselves-on our own and working with like-minded people-can make. I'd like to share with you something Anne Frank wrote about change. Anne was a Jewish girl who was born in Germany in 1929, just about a year after I was born there. From the time she was 13 until she was 15, she lived in hiding from the Nazis in an attic with her family. After their hiding place was discovered, Anne and her sister were transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where they both died of typhoid in March 1945, just a few weeks before the camp was liberated. After her death, Anne attained worldwide fame when her diary was discovered. I'd like to close my remarks by reading you one of the passages in that diary: 

"How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can start now, start slowly changing the world!" 

I hope that all of you here today will change the world so that because of you, it will be a better place for us all. 

Thank you. 

© 2002 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes 

This talk was given on October 8, 2002, at Montgomery College-Takoma Park Campus.