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  • Interviews of, and Articles about, Sonia

Interviews of, and Articles about, Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Articles about Sonia are also contained in the section on Belgium.

Sonia Pressman Fuentes


History of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

An interview was conducted in Sonia Pressman Fuentes' home in Potomac, MD, on December 27, 1990, by Sylvia Danovitch, the assistant to the chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as part of an oral history project to commemorate the EEOC's 25th anniversary. The following is the beginning segment from the interview.

Sylvia had been instructed to conduct interviews of early EEOC staffers in connection with the 25th anniversary of the EEOC.  After she interviewed Sonia and Al Golub, who had been the deputy executive director of the EEOC, and and perhaps some other early EEOC staffers, a man involved in planning the EEOC's 25th anniversary program said to her, "Who cares about history?" and told her to throw those interviews out.  But, instead, since she had worked at the National Archives in the past, she deposited them there.

In addition, Sonia gave her copy of the interview of her to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America for its collection of her papers and other material.  There are two versions of this interview: a sanitized version available now at the Schlesinger and an unsanitized version that won't be available until 2025.

The beginning of this interview was published in June 2003 in the online Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal, whose editor-in-chief is Dina Ripsman Eylon, who is at the University of Toronto. Sonia no longer has a citation to this beginning as it appeared in Women in Judaism.

Danovitch: Today is December 27, 1990. This is Sylvia Danovitch. I'm in Potomac, Maryland, and I'm here to interview Sonia Pressman Fuentes.
Where were you when the Civil Rights Act was passed?
Fuentes: I was working as an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] in Washington, D.C.
Danovitch: Do you have any recollection of it? Is it vivid?
Fuentes: Of the passage of the Civil Rights Act? No.
Danovitch: Had you had any part in the Civil Rights Movement?
Fuentes: You have to go back to my background to understand why I came to the EEOC. You may want to cut me back here, because it's basically--
Danovitch: No, I want to hear it.
Fuentes: It's basically the story of my life, and it's going to go on too long.
Danovitch: Go ahead.
Fuentes: My parents were Polish. They both came from a small town in Poland, but by 1933 they had lived in Germany for twenty-three years. I was born in Berlin, Germany. My family left Germany in 1933 because of the rise of Nazism and Hitler. My brother, who is fourteen years older than I, was responsible for our leaving. As a sensitive young man of eighteen, he saw what the Nazis were doing. He wanted my parents to leave Germany because of Hitler. Well. My father thought this was ridiculous. He had lived in Germany for twenty-three years, he had property there, he was a prosperous businessman. The analogy I always use is that when Senator Joseph McCarthy came to power in the United States, people didn't leave and go to Australia; they figured he would blow over. Similarly, my folks figured Hitler would blow over. 
  So, my brother left by himself and went to Antwerp, Belgium. He would write letters home to my parents. After six months of that, my mother said to my father, "You can't let an eighteen year-old boy be alone in France... So my father sold everything to the Nazis for very little so they would let us leave the country. Then, we lived in Belgium for a while. There, my father read in the newspaper that ships were leaving for the United States, and that's how we came to the United States.
  So, you start with somebody who was here as a refugee from discrimination against Jews. That is my first consciousness and interest in civil rights, that, first of all, I was a Jew, that Jews have historically been the victims of discrimination, and that my family and I escaped with our lives and came here because of Hitler .
  We came to the Bronx, but shortly thereafter we moved to the Catskill Mountains of New York. My parents frequently went to Florida for the winter, and we drove there. So now we're talking-- I was born in 1928, I came to America May 1, 1934, so let's say when I was ten, twelve years old, we were driving to Florida. So, we're talking 1944, something like that. And, we would pass through Georgia and other places in the South, and I was struck, as a child, by the separate benches for whites and blacks. The drinking fountains were separate. I particularly remember the newspaper headlines of the papers in Georgia. [Herman] Talmadge was governor, and there were these horrendous discriminatory, hateful headlines that have stayed with me. And the water fountains and the rest rooms, all of that I saw. I was only a child, but I was very struck by it. Of course, we made these trips every year. From those early experiences arose my interest in doing something about discrimination against blacks. So that was the second factor that led me to an interest in civil rights.
  Well, I graduated from college, and four years later I went to law school. There I had to buck a great deal of-- I don't know if the word is discrimination--a great deal of stereotypical behavior towards me, because women were not going to law school in those days.
Danovitch: What year was this?
Fuentes: I went to law school in 1954. There were a few women in my law school class, and I had a role model, a woman who was an attorney. She and her husband were my parents' attorneys. But women attorneys were few and far between. My parents were opposed to my going to law school. My brother, who now has two granddaughters who are attorneys, was vehemently opposed to my going to law school, and everybody who heard that I was going to law school, said to me, "Why do you want to go to law school?"
Danovitch: What was their opposition? What form did it take?
Fuentes: Well, my parents wanted me to get married at the age of eighteen and have a family and learn to cook and sew. My interest didn't run in those directions. The fact that my life was saved from the Holocaust left me with the feeling that I had to use that life to make the world a better place. And that meant doing something other than just being concerned with my own personal happiness.
  My wanting to be an attorney in the early fifties was comparable to a young woman today saying that she wants to be an astronaut--that doesn't even do it, because that's accepted. I can't think of some weird-o thing, if some young girl said she wanted to do some really weird thing, people would say to her, "Why are you doing that?" Supposing she said she wants to travel around the world for ten days wearing no clothes. People would say, "Why on earth are you doing that? It's an odd thing for a woman to be doing." That's what people said to me. "How come you want to be an attorney?" It just was a weird-o thing for somebody to be doing. I was constantly on the defensive, explaining why I wanted to go to law school.
  At the time, one of my answers was I felt that I had certain verbal and writing skills and an interest in making a contribution to the world, and that it was logical for me to go to law school with these skills and interests. I said it was like somebody who has a skill of playing the piano. Such a person would want to play the piano, and I wanted to use these skills I had. I don't think anybody ever understood that. So, that was the third impact on me. I, as a woman, was on the defensive in doing something that no man would be asked about. So, I had these three influences.
  Then I came to Washington to work, and I ran into quite a bit of discrimination.
Danovitch: What was your first job in Washington?
Fuentes: My first job was with the Office of Alien Property, which was part of the Department of Justice. I came here on the attorney general's program for honor law graduates. In that program, I had an option to decide in which section of the Justice Department I wanted to work, so I opted for the Office of Alien Property. The Office of Alien Property dealt with claims for property seized in World Wars I and II from people who were foreign nationals or were presumed to be from foreign nations. I thought that would be interesting because of my international background.
  During these early years of my career, I was always looking for a better job. I ran into all kinds of discrimination because I was a woman. At one point, I was working in California, and a friend of mine offered to form a partnership with me. He said to me that I wouldn't have to draw any money out of the partnership since I was a woman, whereas he had a family to support. This was a close friend of mine.
Danovitch: Why wouldn't you have needed money?
Fuentes: Because I was on my own and he had a family to support.
Danovitch: You were not married at the time?
Fuentes: No, I was not married.
Danovitch: So, you didn't pay rent.
Fuentes: Sure I did. I'm just telling you what he said to me. He was a close friend of mine until he died this past summer, but he said to me I wouldn't have to draw any money out of the partnership because I didn't have a family.
  I once applied to the Democratic National Committee for a job by writing to its chairman, Paul Butler. He called in response to my letter and offered me a job--answering the phone! He said that the Democratic National Committee didn't need anybody, but he was leaving and going into private practice and asked me to answer the phone for him because he would have to be out of the office at times. At that point, he had my resume, which showed that I had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell and was first in my law school class. And, he asked me to answer the phone in his office!
  Once, I applied for a job with a law firm. The interviewer said they couldn't consider me because I was asking for $10,000 a year, and that was more than some of their male attorneys were earning! He also said he couldn't hire me because I would hear profanity, and they didn't have a women's rest room on the floor where I'd be working. I mean, all these classic things were said to me by this one interviewer.
  One time, I went for an interview and the interviewer said to me, "How do we know you won't get pregnant?" I was not married at that time, and that question really stumped me. Afterwards, I thought of wonderful answers I could have given, such as, "I happen to have a doctor's certificate here with me that I always carry around that shows I can't become pregnant." He suggested that I'd do better taking a job with him as a legal secretary because he'd pay me better than he would as an attorney. 
  I once answered an ad in the American Bar [Association] Journal, and the advertiser wrote me back and offered to marry me. He said, when he died, I could inherit the practice. You know, it goes on and on and on. These experiences influenced my later involvement in women's rights. At the time they occurred, I had no feeling about women's rights because there wasn't such a thing in those days. One of the things that the women's rights movement did, and the EEOC did, was they brought into the consciousness of the country the fact that there were such things as women's rights and discrimination against women. So, while all these things happened to me and they were part of me, they did not at that time coalesce in me. It never occurred to me that there might be a remedy for this type of treatment. I mean, that was the way the world was. Those are the things that happen to you. It was like anything else. You were born beautiful or you were born rich or you weren't, and these were just some of the things that happened to you.
  In 1959, I left the Office of Alien Property and went to work for the National Labor Relations Board here in Washington. In the early sixties, I moved to California to work for the National Labor Relations Board in Los Angeles, and after 1½ years, I returned to Washington. There was a guy who was a trial examiner for the National Labor Relations Board with whom I would have lunch once in a while. He liked women. His way of getting to spend time with me was to always promise me that he would introduce me to people so that I could get a better job. I had another friend at the NLRB, Jackie Williams, who knew this trial examiner. One time I was out to lunch with Jackie and I said, "I just had lunch with so-and-so again, trying to get a better job, and he didn't come up with anything."
            She said, "Oh, you want a better job? Why don't you go see [General Counsel] Charlie [Charles T.] Duncan at the EEOC?" Jackie had gone to Howard Law School, and Charlie had been one of her professors. (Subsequently he became dean of the law school.) She said, "It's right across the street." (The EEOC was at 1800 G Street at the time.) She said, "I know he's looking for people. He's the new general counsel."
  So, I called him up and arranged for an interview. When I went up for the interview, Charlie was sitting at his desk. After I introduced myself, he said to me, "You see all these papers on this desk?"
  I said, "Yes."
  He said, "Those are all applications for jobs in the general counsel's office. I don't know why, but I'm going to hire you." That's how I came to work at the EEOC.
Danovitch: You really didn't know why? You hadn't had a conversation with him?
Fuentes: Maybe, I had some little conversation with him, but what I remember him saying is that. But he knew I'd been sent by Jackie.
Danovitch: So, this was your first really legal job?
Fuentes: No. My first legal job was with the Office of Alien Property. Then, I was at the National Labor Relations Board. When I started at Alien Property, I was a law clerk, but when I passed the bar I became an attorney.
Danovitch: You were performing fully as an attorney?
Fuentes: Absolutely. I spent 6½ years at the National Labor Relations Board. I had a variety of jobs at the NLRB, both in Washington and in the field. I had a three-month detail in Pittsburgh and spent one and a half years in the Los Angeles office.
Danovitch: So, what you're saying is that in the private sector--
Fuentes: This is all public.
Danovitch: Yes. People were offering to hire you as a secretary.
Fuentes: That was in the private sector. I was already working as an attorney in the federal government.
Danovitch: But in the federal sector, when you got these jobs, you were fully an attorney.
Fuentes: Absolutely.
Danovitch: I just wanted to clarify that.
Fuentes: Oh, yes. I became an attorney a few months after I started to work.
Danovitch: So, it's not unfair to say that there weren't, during the fifties, at least, good opportunities for female attorneys in the private sector.
Fuentes: Absolutely true.
Danovitch: But in the federal sector, if you got the job, you were fully an attorney.
Fuentes: Fully an attorney, but let's not give the impression that there was not discrimination against women attorneys in the federal sector. The difference was as follows. The private sector wouldn't hire you at all. The federal sector, the government sector, would hire you, but you didn't go beyond certain grade levels. There were very few women at these higher grades, and there are statistics that show this.
Danovitch: What about at the EEOC?
Fuentes: The EEOC was a brand-new agency.
Danovitch: Let's get a fix on the time. Do you remember the date that you started?
Fuentes: Absolutely. I started October 4, 1965, four months after the EEOC opened for business.[i]
Danovitch: So you were right there at the nascent stage.
Fuentes: Absolutely.
Danovitch: What was your first job?
Fuentes: As I said, there was no such thing as women's rights. I just came in because I was interested in civil rights, which to me meant black rights.
Danovitch: You had used "civil rights" several times before.
Fuentes: It only meant blacks to me at that time, which is what I think it meant to other people, too. Many years later, you got women's rights, you got ethnic rights--rights for Hispanics--you got rights for people with disabilities. All that came later.
Danovitch: But you came from a background in Germany where Jews were certainly deprived, first of their rights and then of their lives.
Fuentes: Correct.
Danovitch: Civil rights meant black rights just in the U.S.A.?
Fuentes: The U.S.A. I was thinking of rights for blacks, who were not called blacks then. I think they were called Negroes.
Danovitch: I think it depended on where you were. In some situations, the preferred term early on was "colored."
Fuentes: That was earlier. "Colored" was before the time when I was an adult. Then, it was "Negroes," and somewhere along the line it changed to "blacks."
Danovitch: In the late sixties, I think.
Fuentes: I came to the EEOC to be a lawyer, not with any particular axe to grind. At that time, there were 100 people in the EEOC. Charlie Duncan, the general counsel, was black. The deputy general counsel was a guy named Dick Berg, who went on to have and is having, after he left the EEOC, a distinguished career. He's still working in the field of administrative law. I was third in the GC's office. Fourth was a young man named John Dalessio. I have no idea what happened to him. The chairman at that time was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. The other commissioners were Aileen Hernandez, who went on to become the first president of the National Organization for Women [NOW], of which I'm a founder. We had FDR, Jr., Aileen, Dick [Richard] Graham, someone who is a hero of mine and who is here in Washington. (About four years ago, I and two other women planned a twentieth anniversary reunion for NOW, and it was held at Dick Graham's and his wife Nancy's home.
  There was also Sam Jackson, a black. How many have we got there? Oh, and the vice chairman was Luther Holcomb, a white man who was a minister from Texas. Have I given you five commissioners?
Danovitch: Yes.
Fuentes: I came in with no preconceived notions, except what I've told you about my background, but no preconceived notions about the EEOC except I favored the law and the mission of the agency. The executive director was a guy named Herman Edelsberg. Dick Berg and Herman Edelsberg were Jewish. Dick was married to a non-Jewish woman. Herman Edelsberg was married to a Jewish woman. Herman Edelsberg came out of Jewish organizational life. He was very active in B'nai B'rith. He recently had a book published posthumously, in which he credits me, along with Pauli Murray, as having turned him around on women's rights.
Danovitch: Some people have emphasized that sex as a basis of illegal discrimination was thrown in by Congressman [Howard W.] Smith in order to defeat the act. Is it possible that since black unemployment was so high and the situation of blacks was so bad that they [certain EEOC officials] didn't want to dilute the EEOC's efforts?
Fuentes: Well, first of all, I don't want it to stand on the record that sex came into Title VII solely because Congressman Smith offered it as an amendment. We all know that story. On the other hand, there had been lobbying for I don't know how many years for an equal pay bill, which was passed the year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [the Equal Pay Act of 1963], and lobbying for I don't know how many years for an equal rights amendment. So, while there was no women's movement, as came later after the passage of Title VII, there had been efforts for women's rights for many years preceding the passage of Title VII. Besides, Martha Griffiths has stated that she had an amendment ready to add sex discrimination to the bill before Congressman Smith did it. So, I don't like that "fluke" idea to stand there by itself.
Danovitch: Since you opened this door, I could ask you now a question I've asked many persons. Was there a feeling that the purpose of this act was to redress the unequal status of blacks in this country?
Fuentes: In spades.
Danovitch: And that everything else was superfluous?
Fuentes: Correct.
Danovitch: And wasn't really legitimate?
Fuentes: The people who didn't feel that way were myself--and I was a lower level person at the EEOC. Aileen Hernandez, Dick Graham, and perhaps Sam Jackson, although I think Sam Jackson had ambivalent feelings about women's rights.
Danovitch: If this was the majority view, that the law was there for the blacks, how did it express itself in terms of budgeting? No agency ever has enough money. Certainly the EEOC had this enormous backlog.
Fuentes: No, it didn't start with a backlog.
Danovitch: Well, practically by the day it opened.
Fuentes: No, that's not my impression. We did not start with any kind of a backlog. What happened was—I can't answer your question about budgeting and backlogs, because I didn't work in those areas. All I knew about was that the overwhelming attitude at the commission was that they didn't want resources diverted to women's issues. Plus, there was another problem. Women's issues--and I'll tell you what some of them were--demanded interpretation. They raised interesting and challenging legal issues. The black cases didn't.
Danovitch: I'd like you to explain that.
Fuentes: The anti-women's rights attitude at the commission was pervasive. I just read the law and I thought that's what you're supposed to do. I don't know how to say this in English. There's a Jewish word called chachmas;it means "tricks," or "silly, cleverly concealed ruses." I didn't know any chachmas. I read the law. It said you're supposed to prevent discrimination against women. I thought that's what you were supposed to do. I was totally naive. I didn't have any axes to grind, but it was like pushing a rock uphill because nobody else wanted that.
  Now, Charlie Duncan was educable on the issue of women's rights, and I educated him in this area. He's a black guy. He supported me. But in the beginning, he called me a "sex maniac," because I was interested in enforcing the prohibitions against sex discrimination. That made me a "sex maniac" at the commission.
Danovitch: Let me make sure I understand how it expressed itself in addition to attitudes. Were race charges put at the top of the list?
Fuentes: I have no such knowledge. Luther Holcomb asked Charlie--I was assigned to draft the decisions involving the airline flight cabin attendants.
Danovitch: Do you have an idea what year that was?
Fuentes: Early. '66, maybe. I have stuff written where I could dig this out, but I'm guessing '66. I may be wrong. Luther Holcomb asked Charlie Duncan to take me off writing those decisions because I was prejudiced. And by "prejudiced," he meant that I favored eliminating discrimination against women. Charlie Duncan did not take me off writing those decisions.
  You asked me about some of the issues. The only issue that could have arisen in the race area--I'm talking early days--the only issue was did you have to hire a black guy to play a role in a movie that's obviously a role for a white man. That issue really never presented itself in actuality, to my knowledge; it was just something we kicked around. That was the only job we could think about in the early days where you could legitimately consider race as a job qualification. Otherwise, you couldn't discriminate against blacks, and that was the end of it.
  In the women's area, one of the early issues involved state protective legislation. That issue arose out of activities in the labor movement in the past. Years ago, women's groups and labor unions supported protective legislation for women--legislation that limited women to working a certain number of hours a day, limited the amount of weight they could lift, and otherwise restricted women's working conditions. Support for this legislation stemmed from two motives--the idea that women were to be protected and the desire to safeguard men's jobs.
  Those laws might have served some purpose in protecting women when they were passed--and they didn't do all that much harm in blocking women's advancement since most women only remained in the labor force for a number of years in those days, until they got married. But, in the sixties, when the EEOC began to function, these laws served only to keep women from being hired into, or promoted into, decent jobs and earning decent money. And some of these laws were ludicrous. In Utah, for example, legislation prohibited women from holding jobs which required lifting more than fifteen pounds!
  State protective laws were a terrible barrier to women. Women couldn't be supervisors because a supervisor might have to work longer hours or work in the evening. This struggle over state protective laws created a division among women. One of the outstanding proponents of state protective legislation was Mary Keyserling, a prominent woman, now the widow of Leon Keyserling, a famous economist. She was in the Labor Department at the time, and I remember meeting with her. Here was this big-shot woman, you know, who favored state protective legislation, and here I was, just a lowly employee, and I argued with her. I didn't have any labor history, I didn't have anything at all, but I had read the law, and I felt that, well, I was a lawyer and I knew that federal legislation superseded conflicting state legislation. Very simple principle. Obviously, as I read the law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 knocked out conflicting state protective legislation. I didn't need any philosophy or anything to come to that conclusion; it was just straight law.
  So that was the first big issue. That was a particularly problematical issue because people who didn't want to enforce the law for women in the first place loved it that they could point to a division among women and say, "Women themselves don't know what they want. How can we step in?" That was a wonderful out for them.
  Another big issue that raised problems was BFOQ, bona fide occupational qualification. It was really the first big issue. The question was: Did you really have to hire a woman for every job that a man could do? People said, "Oh, women can't lift," they couldn't be a fireperson, and they couldn't be a police person. You couldn't become a construction worker. People did not consider women in those days for those jobs. I drafted the EEOC's first Annual Digest of Legal Interpretations, and we finally ended up saying the only jobs for which sex could be a BFOQ were sperm donor and wet nurse. You could legally refuse to hire a woman as a sperm donor and you could legally refuse to hire a man as a wet nurse. Beyond those jobs (which, to my knowledge, never came up in actual cases), sex was not a BFOQ.
  Pregnancy was another big issue. All these issues were raised in the sex discrimination area, which people didn't want to deal with, whereas in the black area, it was a clear cut. You didn't hire a black for a job? That was unlawful, and that was the end of it. Pregnancy was a big issue. Did you have to hire a pregnant woman, who might then leave because she was going to give birth? Could you require women to leave the job when they got pregnant? This was all uncharted territory. Nobody had ever dealt with these questions before, at least not at the federal level.
  Some of the big cases that came up involved schoolteachers. Schools used to fire schoolteachers when they got pregnant. The thinking was, "It's not nice for a child to see a pregnant woman because the child might realize that that woman had had sex." So, they fired pregnant schoolteachers.
  You had the airline stewardess issue. I was very involved in that. Airlines, at various times in their history, hired only women, and at other times, they hired only men. The various rationales for this varying discrimination were fascinating. In the beginning, they hired only women. The airlines' rationale was people were afraid to fly because they felt it wasn't safe. So the airlines hired women and put them in nurses' uniforms so that people would be reassured that if something happened, there was a nurse on board to take care of them. Later on, they hired only men, because they could carry the luggage. Then, they went back to hiring women--this time because of their sexual attraction for the mostly-male passengers.
Danovitch: But you didn't take your luggage on the plane.
Fuentes: The stewards were used to move luggage to wherever the airline was moving it. In the sixties, airlines were hiring only women for domestic flights because they [the airlines] were competing on the basis of the "glamour." But, they would hire only men for international routes. I don't know the rationale for that. They called them pursers or stewards. That's the wonderful thing about sex discrimination. The rationales are wild. For example, you would hire only a men to be brain surgeons because they had the necessary manual dexterity, but you would hire only women as technicians in electrical plants because they had the necessary manual dexterity. This is wonderful stuff. Whenever you deal with rationales for discrimination, you get this kind of stuff, because discrimination makes no sense.
  Classified advertising was a big issue. All the advertising in those days was in either "Help Wanted, Female," or "Help Wanted, Male" columns. Everybody accepted that; people were always looking for a "Girl Friday." Now, if you just looked at that issue as a lawyer, it was obvious that the law required one set of ads. But the country was at first unwilling, advertisers were unwilling, to do that. So, at first the EEOC came up with this cockamamie solution. They required a box on the classified advertising page that said something like, "While we're listing ads under 'Help Wanted, Male' and 'Help Wanted, Female,' we don't really mean it, and anybody can apply." Ridiculous! That was the early position of the EEOC. Thereafter, NOW was formed, and NOW actively fought sex-segregated advertising columns. Eventually, the EEOC required non-segregated classified ads.
  These are some of the issues we dealt with in the early days.
Danovitch: These issues were issues you dealt with right from the start, from the word go?
Fuentes: Well, they [the commission] grappled with it unwillingly. I sat behind Vice Chairman Luther Holcomb when he testified in the Congress that he wanted Congress to take sex out of the act.
Danovitch: Afterwards.
Fuentes: Yes, after it was in the act, of course.
Danovitch: But we know, at least with the benefit of time, that sex and race in many ways informed each other.
Fuentes: Correct. That's true. But that came with time.
Danovitch: Right. It had a very positive, almost synergistic quality. Certainly when the sexual harassment guidelines were under fire.
Fuentes: That's much later. Sexual harassment issues arose much later.
Danovitch: Right. But one of the ways in which we explained why it was reachable under Title VII was that sex harassment had some properties to it which were similar to race harassment.
Fuentes: This was not done much in the early days. The reason was that one of the differences was that even in 1965 you wouldn't say to somebody, "I won't hire you because you're black," but you would say, "I won't hire you because you're a woman." So, people did not see the similarities between race and sex discrimination. While you and I see them, that recognition came later to most people.
Danovitch: Is it because race discrimination was presumed to be hateful, invidious, but nobody hated women?
Fuentes: No, no. It was because there was a consciousness in this country for years, and especially after Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the whole Civil Rights Movement, there was a consciousness that racial discrimination went against the grain of this country, went against what this country was supposed to stand for. But, the most recent women's movement did not start until the mid-sixties, so there was no consciousness in this country that there was anything wrong with treating women differently. (There was, of course, an earlier women's movement in the United States, which began about 1848 and ended in the early 1920s.) Women were considered different from men. It was already acknowledged that blacks were not different from whites; I mean acknowledged by thinking people. But it was acknowledged that women were different from men, and therefore, it was acceptable to treat them differently?
Danovitch: Anatomically, they were different.
Fuentes: No. Much more than that. They were considered different in many ways.
Danovitch: Women did have the capacity to bear children.
Fuentes: They bore children, they were busy with the children. Their rightful place was in the home. They thought differently. They couldn't handle finances. They were frivolous. All of that.
Danovitch: We are a relatively young country and we also have another tradition, which was the frontier tradition. Women were very much a part of the work world in the frontier. Women had not always been put on pedestals and left to take care of the children. They took care of the children, but they took care of the farm.
Fuentes: Women worked in the factories in the Second World War. But when the war ended, the women went back to their homes and the men took over the jobs.
Danovitch: Right. But I'm talking about in earlier periods.
Fuentes: But, that did not have a lasting effect on the place of women in our country.
Danovitch: But one explanation that has been offered is that there was an assumption that discrimination against blacks issued from hate, and that discrimination against women was another matter and, therefore, in a different league.
Fuentes: I'm agreeing with you that it was another matter. I think "hate" is an oversimplification. A lot of people say it had a lot to do with economics. I don't know that it was hate. I would say it was economics, it was slavery, it was a lot of things. But, whatever it was, it was acceptable to treat women differently, and it was not acceptable to treat blacks differently.
Danovitch: In 1965.
Fuentes: Correct. Title VII became effective on July 2, 1965. But treating women differently was still considered acceptable after the law became effective, because the law hadn't had any impact yet. 
Danovitch: What I think you're telling me is that you remember clearly that regardless of the compromises that went into the law, the way the law was ultimately written, there was still a feeling, at least in the early period when you were at the EEOC, that that law was a black law, meaning it was designed to redress the unequal status of blacks, and that even though sex was included as a prohibited basis of discrimination, there were numerous persons of influence at the EEOC who really didn't accept that and were willing to sweep it under the carpet. One went so far as to testify that it ought to be taken out of the act. 
Fuentes: I don't want to say they felt the law was a black law. They knew what the law said. They just didn't want to do it. 
Danovitch: I'm dwelling on this for two or three reasons, and I'll make it clear. Many persons who have been interviewed, at least with the benefit of twenty-some years, don't remember that there was any difference in the way the staff felt about race discrimination as opposed to sex discrimination. They say from day one, everything was the same. 
Fuentes: That's one of the things that bothers me. I've often said to my friend, Mary Eastwood, "We need to get the actual history recorded." 
  Those people who try to rewrite history after they see the way the wind is blowing, that really makes my blood boil. 
Danovitch: That's why I'm saying it, because I want to hear your recollections, because they stand out in contrast to a great deal of the testimony that I've taken. 
Fuentes: But, I was there. One of my outstanding memories is that I used to leave the office of the executive director, after talking with him about these issues, and I'd be walking on the street to my car, and the tears would be rolling down my face because I felt like I was in such a difficult position. Basically, I was battling the whole commission, except for the few people who felt as I did. I didn't know how I got into that spot. Nobody had elected me to represent women. I didn't know how I got into the position of battling almost an entire agency. I used to feel terrible about it, but that's the position in which I found myself. 
  It was because of that that the National Organization for Women was founded. Betty Friedan--and this is in her book, It Changed My Life. Betty Friedan came around to interview Charlie Duncan and Dick Berg for this book. The first time she was there, she came to me and she said, "How are things here? What's the conflict? What are the problems?" As a writer, she was looking for conflict. 
DanovitchIt Changed My Life was-- 
Fuentes: The name of her book. 
Danovitch: I remember The Feminine Mystique. 
Fuentes: That was written earlier. 
Danovitch: Written in the 1950s. [ii] 
Fuentes: Yes. 
Danovitch: And the next one was-- 
Fuentes: I don't know. She's written a number. But It Changed My Life is the one that deals with founding NOW. 
Danovitch: And about coming to the EEOC. 
Fuentes: Right. She came and asked me what were the conflicts, what were the problems. How could I talk to her and tell her what was going on? I felt I would jeopardize my job. So, the first time she came around, I said nothing to her. The second time she came around--she didn't come around to interview me; she came around to talk to Charlie Duncan and Dick Berg. The second time she came around, I took her into my private office and I started to cry. I said to her, "What this country needs is an organization for women like the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] is for blacks. I said that because I had this lonely struggle over there. Now, I'll tell you what I did after NOW was founded, which is one of the things that got the commission moving. How they never found out about it, I don't know. I've talked about it openly only for the last couple of years. I was a founder of NOW, and there were about sixty of us who founded NOW. After NOW was founded, I used to get terribly frustrated because I'd be at meetings of the commission where things would come up dealing with women, and the commission didn't do what I thought it should be doing under the law. 
  Then, at night I would meet with other NOW members in private homes, and with people like Mary Eastwood, Phineas Indritz, and others, and I would tell them what the commission had not done that day that I thought it should have done. Then, we would draft a letter to the commission, putting in the facts that I knew, and asking the commission to do the right thing. Those letters were sent to the commission on behalf of NOW, prodding the commission to take action in sex discrimination areas. 
  I don't understand why the commission never realized somebody was telling this organization these facts. Now, that's an unethical thing to do. I'm just telling you that's how driven I was to the wall that I did that. We did that for a considerable period of time. We sent those letters to the EEOC, asking them, "How come you haven't done this? How come you haven't done that?" and so on. NOW also picketed the EEOC. NOW brought a lawsuit against the EEOC on the classified advertising issue. If you're saying that people think the EEOC did the same thing for women as it did for blacks, let me tell you, it took letters, it took picketing, it took lawsuits to get the commission to move in the area of women's rights.

 

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[i] "I say that I started with the EEOC on October 4, 1965, four months after it opened for business. My math was simply wrong here. The EEOC opened on July 5, 1965." –spf.

[ii] The Feminine Mystique was first published in 1963. [Editor's note]

© 1990 Sonia Pressman Fuentes