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Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia reminisces about her three British feminist friends, March 25, 2014.

For over forty years, I’ve known and been in touch with three feminists in the UK: Joan Davies, Dr. Margherita Rendel, and Dr. Oonagh Hartnett. I have no recollection of how I met any of them. I have just always known them.

I have always referred to them as the UK’s three outstanding feminists but I have no idea whether that is true.  They are simply the three British feminist activists with whom I’ve been in touch for the many decades I’ve been a feminist. For a brief time there was a fourth, Virginia Novarro, but she dropped off the radar screen and I have no idea what happened to her.

Joan Davies was the first woman to teach at Sandhurst, Britain’s military academy, comparable to our West Point. Joan came to visit me in 1972 when my daughter, Zia, was an infant and I was living in Arlington, VA and working for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  She was due to come to my office at the EEOC at 9:00 a.m. upon her arrival in Washington, D.C., but I arrived two hours late.  My housekeeper had taken off in the middle of the night, my husband was in Canada on business, and I didn’t know what to do.  I finally dropped Zia off at the home of a woman who took children in by the day and I got to work at 11:00 a.m.--but Joan wasn’t there.   When she arrived shortly after I did, she told me that she hadn’t been able to locate the EEOC.  She had gotten a letterhead from them but it said only “Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington, D.C.” When she got to Washington and asked various people where the EEOC was, none had ever heard of it! (The EEOC was a small agency and had only been in existence for seven years at that time.) Joan stayed with me for a while; she used to stand at Zia’s crib singing God Save the Queen on the assumption that Zia would know it when she grew up, but that didn’t happen. Joan had a great sense of humor, I always teased her about her British accent, and we had great times together.

Years later, Zia and I visited Joan and her husband, Bill, at a lovely home with a garden where she grew fruits and vegetables.  She made lovely meals for us and when it was time for dessert, she’d tell me to go outside and pick what I wanted.  She was a wonderful cook and I loved her home-made scones.  But, I was amazed that they didn’t have a refrigerator.  Joan said when she needed to keep things cold, she simply put them in the pantry attached to her home, where it was cool. Their home was twenty miles from York and while there we went to see Pride and Prejudice at a theater there. I loved it. It starred the British actor, Ian Carmichael, whom I’d seen on American TV playing P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Lord Peter Wimsey in a Dorothy Sayers mystery series.  We also went shopping in the town and I couldn’t get over the small net bags the grocers had into which they put the items people purchased.  Apparently, they didn’t expect to sell a great deal to any one person.  We stopped while shopping and bought fish and chips, which we ate in the street; I loved it.  Joan had two sons, one of whom, Adam, lived in Sweden for quite some time, and a daughter, Claire.  She spoke of them often to me.  Then Bill died, and some time thereafter, Joan hooked up with John, someone she’d known in the past, and with whom she thereafter had a most companionable relationship. Joan was always active in feminist activities worldwide, fought female genital mutilation, and was involved politically.  She ran for office at one time, I think for MP, but was not successful. I hadn’t heard from Joan for a while when I received an email from Claire a year or two ago.  She said she had come across my email address and wanted me to know that both Joan and John were staying in a nursing home.  Claire visited her there and gave her my regards.

Dr. Margharita Rendel was a researcher and writer, a Lecturer at the University of London, and a barrister. She lives in London but vacations at her home in the Cotswolds.  On two occasions when I was in London, she took me for a meal at the City Women’s Club, to which she belonged. In 1978, Margharita arranged for me to testify about the EEOC’s experience  in administering a law prohibiting gender discrimination in employment before a Select Committee of the House of Lords, which was considering the passage of similar legislation for Great Britain.  Margharita also arranged a two-week tour of Great Britain for me after my testimony, where I was to speak on the American experience with anti-gender discrimination legislation.  Shortly before I was to depart for the U.K., at a time when I had completed drafting about three-fourths of my testimony, I was stricken with back trouble and hospitalized.  My feminist friend, Catherine East, on two weeks’ notice, agreed to deliver my testimony to the Select Committee and do the two week lecture tour, giving her own lectures. She came to my hospital bed, the two of us together finished my testimony, and Catherine went to the U.K., delivered my testimony, and then did the two-week lecture tour.  Thereafter, that legislation was passed for Great Britain and Ireland passed similar legislation.  Margharita remains active working on various issues. In recent years, she has been involved in studying the rail system of the U.K. and you can see her name listed in a paper on that subject here. You can read about her here

Dr. Oonagh Hartnett was a researcher, writer, and  teacher of women’s studies at a college or institute in or near Cardiff, Wales. I googled her for this email and found that she had compiled a paper or book called Women’s Studies in the U.K. with Margharita, which was edited by a Zoë Fairbarns; it is availale from an organization called London Seminars, located at Margharita’s home address. In the summer of 2009, when I went to the U.K. and took three weeks of summer courses at Christ Church, Oxford University, the four of us had a reunion at Oonagh’s charming townhouse at 110 Rhymney St. in Cardiff.  A slide show of that reunion (as well as other pictures of my stay in the U.K. at that time) may be seen on my website.  At that time, I was surprised  to see that Joan was walking with two long sticks, had difficulty getting around, and complained of difficulty in finding comfortable shoes. Nonetheless, while I was at Christ Church, I was asked by the National Student Union to give a talk to their members at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford.  I did so, and Joan and John travelled there and back to hear me speak.

Shortly after the reunion, I received  a brief note from Oonagh with a return address of a nursing home.  Stupidly, I didn’t keep the envelop, thinking that I’d heard from her again.  When I didn’t,  I kept looking for  her on google and finally found a YouTube video of her made by a Robert  Slater when she was celebrating her seventy-ninth birthday at the nursing home, Belle Vue, in Cardiff. You can see that video here. I have been in touch with Robert ever since; he visits Oonagh frequently and keeps me informed on how she’s doing.  Sadly, shortly after our reunion, Oonagh, who was a smoker, fell asleep one day, her cigarette dropped into a waste basket with paper, and her charming house burned down. Fortunately, she was saved, although she has dementia, and lives in Belle Vue now.

Early this afternoon, I received an email from Claire, which said, in pertinent part:  “I am sorry to let you know that mum passed away peacefully this morning. She had become so weak that there was nothing anyone could do. You were a very important friend to her so it was great that I found your email address and re-connected her with you.”

Joan is gone, and one of the four legs of the table we four made up no longer supports us.  Sic transit gloria mundi.


Sonia with Joan Davies, London, July 1990.