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Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

How I Built A Life In Retirement

Sonia Pressman Fuentes: Feminist Activist
Attorney Pens Memoir

Sonia FuentesSonia Pressman Fuentes has received accolades and recognition for the work of a lifetime that had previously gone unnoticed except by feminists and a few friends. During her career, she served as the first woman attorney in the General Counsel's Office at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She was the highest-paid woman executive at the headquarters of two multinational corporations, GTE (Stamford, Connecticut) and TRW (Cleveland, Ohio). She was also a founder of the Second Wave of the women's movement, having been a founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Women's Equity Action League (WEAL) and Federally Employed Women (FEW). Currently, she serves on the Board of the National Woman's Party. 

On May 29, 1993, the day before her 65th birthday, she returned from her retirement party at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to face the question: What did she want to do with the rest of her life?

"When the euphoria wore off, I became dejected. I realized that everything I'd worked for my entire life-from elementary school to high school to college to law school to thirty-six years of work experience-was over. At work, I had a structured environment: I left my house each morning by car and metro; worked from 8:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.; frequently met friends for lunch and dinner, followed by a movie, lecture, concert, or theater performance. What would I put in place of all those activities?

"I had almost limitless options. Did I want to work as a volunteer? To travel? To take college courses? To move to another location? To find part-time or full-time employment? I had enough money to see me through just about anything I wanted to do, within reason. But what did I want to do?

"There followed a year of total confusion and trial-and-error attempts at various things, none of which worked out. I tried finding part-time and full-time employment: I answered help-wanted ads, attended Job Fairs for seniors, and contacted employment agencies in both the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, areas. I did not receive a single job offer.

"So, I assayed volunteer work: I spent several months training to be a volunteer with the Smithsonian Institution and worked at the Museum of Natural History for some time thereafter. Then I served as a volunteer attorney with the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission.

"I became depressed and began seeing a therapist regularly. It appeared that my life was over.

"I began to think about commemorating the historic role I'd played in the women's movement. But I didn't want to pour through all my papers and write a lengthy tome myself. So I embarked on a search for a writer to work with me. I spent a year in libraries, talking to friends, writing to publishers and writers' organizations, and meeting with writers. What I learned was that a writer would work with a non-celebrity only upon the payment of thousands of dollars. I was loath to invest that kind of money in a project that might never result in publication. A friend suggested I go to the library of the Foundation Center, a nonprofit organization that focuses on foundations in Washington, D.C., to research information on grants. There I could learn how to apply for a grant, which I could then use to pay a writer.  

"When I contemplated going to the Foundation Center, I knew I had come to the end of the road. I decided that if my trip to the Foundation Center didn't produce results, I would give up the idea of writing a book. So before I left for the Center, I spoke to God, something I rarely do. 'God,' I said, 'if you want this book written, you'll have to make it happen. I've done all I can do.'

"At the Center, I found that one needed expertise in order to apply for a grant. And I was not prepared to spend the time and money involved in familiarizing myself with this field. Mixed in among the brochures on grant seeking were a résumé and business card from a woman named Sara Fisher. She described herself as 'Writer, Editor, Proofreader.' I decided to call her.

"This was, after all, going to be the end of my efforts. We agreed to meet for coffee at Zorba's Café in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C.

"At coffee, Sara and I chatted casually about our lives and about my interest in writing about my role in the Second Wave of the women's movement. And then she said something that changed my life: ‘That's not the book you want to write. You want to write a book of humorous stories about your parents, the kind of stories you've been telling me. And you want to write it yourself.’  

"Her words reached me, and I decided to follow her advice. After all, I'd always wanted to be a writer. I just hadn't wanted to write. I went home and began to write the story of my parents' lives and my own.  

"I spent the next 5½ years learning my new craft and researching and writing my book. I joined the International Women's Writing Guild (IWWG), the National Writers Union (NWU), and local writers' groups. I subscribed to the Writer's Digest and read books on writing. I took a course on writing a book at the Writers' Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and attended a two-week Elderhostel memoir writing program at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. I hired a lawyer who specialized in literary matters to review my book for possible invasion of privacy and libel issues.  

"At the same time, I began to market my book-writing to magazine, e-zine, and book publishers and literary agents; and contacting libraries, colleges and universities, bookstores and book festivals, and organizations and clubs to set up speaking engagements and memoir readings. I ordered business cards and prepared a display of my book cover for memoir readings.

"While this was going on, I took a vacation to Sarasota, Florida. A friend who had moved there had been urging me to visit for years. I fell in love with Sarasota at first sight. It is a small town with big city amenities: it has a symphony orchestra, an art movie theater, other movie theaters, opera, and lectures and restaurants galore. I rented, and later bought, a condo there and created a second life for myself, with a new environment, new friends, and new activities.

"At the end of 1999, my memoir, Eat First--You Don't Know What They'll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter, was published in paperback and hardback in the U.S. and as an e-book. In January 2001, it was published as a paperback in the U.K.

"The results have been beyond my wildest expectations." 

Excerpts from Sonia Fuentes’ memoirs have been published in newspapers, journals, and magazines in the U.S., Canada, and South Africa; many are available on-line. Her book was used as a textbook at Cornell University and American University, and she addressed the classes using her book at both institutions. It was a thrill for her to return to Cornell fifty years after her graduation from that institution, and to enter a classroom where the professor and every student had her book at his or her desk. 

At a gala reception and dinner-dance at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Sonia was one of four awardees given the Women at Work Award by Wider Opportunites for Women (WOW) for 1999. Prior awardees include Katie Couric, Jane Fonda, Linda Ellerbee, and Hillary Rodham Clinton.  

In March 2000, Sonia was one of five women inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame and she was included in Women of Achievement in Maryland History, a reference book to be published in October 2002.   She is included in the Gallery of Prominent Refugees at established by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to commemorate its 50th anniversary.

She is represented by a speakers bureau and is in constant demand for speaking engagements and memoir readings at colleges and universities, bookstores, libraries, genealogy societies, and other organizations.

Sonia reflects, "At first, nothing I tried in retirement worked out. When I gave up and opened myself up to new experiences, I entered the richest phase of my life."

This article has appeared in the following online publications:

  • WritersWeekly.com
  • seniority.co.uk
  • OurSeniorYears.com
  • seniorpro.com
  • 2Young2Retire.com
  • elderchicks.com
  • takeonlifenow.com

©2000 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes.