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  • Interviews of, and Articles about, Sonia

Interviews of, and Articles about, Sonia Pressman Fuentes

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Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Cover story for the Senior Beacon

by Barbara Ruben

October 2000

Barbara Ruben is a writer for the Senior Beacon (October, 2000)

Sonia Pressman FuentesBack in the mid-1960s, newspapers still categorized their classified ads into "Help Wanted -- Male" and Help Wanted -- Female."  Airlines could ground flight attendants when they married or reached the ripe old age of 35.  And pregnant teachers could be fired without repercussion.

That was the climate in which Sonia Pressman Fuentes, now 71, began her career as the first woman attorney in the general counsel's office of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC).

At the time, many of the men in the highest echelons of the EEOC did not view sex discrimination as part of their mission, according to Fuentes.  Indeed, for her seemingly heretical efforts to put women's rights on the agenda, the general counsel for the EEOC once called her a "sex maniac."

In her recent memoir, Eat First -- You Don't Know What They'll Give You, Fuentes, who lives in Potomac, MD., recounts her efforts as a pioneer for equal opportunity for women.  She also writes about her family's emigration from Berlin, Germany in 1934 to flee the Holocaust.

That childhood experience helped spark her lifelong passion for fighting discrimination, whether religious or sexual, Fuentes said.

Double Agent

In 1966, Fuentes became a founding member of the National Organization for Women (NOW).  Fuentes became involved after feminist writer Betty Friedan asked to interview her for a follow-up book to Friedan's groundbreaking work, The Feminine Mystique.  

Ironically, though she worked as a civil rights attorney for the EEOC, Fuentes feared her work for women's rights would get her in hot water with her employer.

"I thought, I can't tell [Friedan] anything.  I'll lose my job," Fuentes recalled in an interview.  "But I thought about everything that was being ignored by the Commission, and when I talked with her, I had tears in my eyes.

"I told her we needed an organization to light a fire for women like the NAACP did for blacks," Fuentes said.  "The next day, at a lunch, Betty wrote out on a napkin a plan for what would become NOW."

In the evenings after work, Fuentes would meet with other NOW members in an apartment in Southwest Washington, D.C., discussing the inaction of the Commission.  NOW members would then draft letters to the EEOC demanding action in an area Fuentes brought to their attention.

NOW later picketed the White House and the EEOC as Fuentes sat in her office.

And slowly the EEOC began to change.  The Commission began holding public hearings on issues like sex-segregated classified ads.  The Commission ruled that a woman could not be refused employment or fired because she was pregnant or had children. 

Fuentes herself drafted the lead decision that found airline policies toward stewardesses -- from dictating their weight, to the age at which they must retire -- were unlawful.

"Even then, I did not realize what we were doing in the realm of employment would spill over into every other aspect of American life," she said.  "The changes between 1965 and 2000 have been mind blowing.

"From the number of women now at West Point and law school, to the rates of divorce and child support, no one could have envisioned the changes."

But Fuentes also said that, although women have come a long way, they have far to go.

"More women are battered and homeless.  Women are still being paid unequal wages for comparable work.  We don't have enough women in the executive suite, or the House and Senate for that matter," she said.

By 1973, Fuentes decided she had taken her EEOC job as far as she could, and moved on to a variety of other corporate attorney jobs, always striving to break through the glass ceilings at her places of employment.

Along the way, she married a man from Puerto Rico, gave birth to her daughter Zia, and then divorced.

Eat  First recounts these events, along with memoirs of her eary days, including going to law school in the 1950s, when only about 3 percent of law students were women.

Fuentes has earned many honors for her accomplishments.  In 1996, she received the Veteran Feminists of America Medal of Honor -- an award given to feminists who contributed to equal rights during the 1960s and 70s.  In 1999, the organization Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) presented her with the Woman at Work Award.

Earlier this year, she was one of five women inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame by the Maryland Commission for Women.  "We want to honor Maryland women who very often are left out of the history books," said Carol Silberg, executive director of the commission.

"To me, to have arrived as an immigrant with her family starting over in this country, she has achieved quite a bit," said Silberg.

Reinventing Retirement

But when her high-powered career came to an end with retirement at age 65, Fuentes was at a loss for what to do next.  She planned to volunteer as a mediator for the D.C. Superior Court in the area of domestic relations, but the cases presented at the training session so depressed her, she decided not to continue.

"All my life I went to school, became a lawyer, build up a career.  Now everything seemed to be all over.  It was a pretty depressing thought," she said.

Eventually, she decided to write a book, which she credits with pulling her out of the retirement doldrums.

"When I first retired, if you'd have told me I'd write a book, I would say, 'get your head examined'," she recalled.  "But I'm now in the richest period of my life ever."

This month, Fuentes will make several local appearances reading from her book and speaking about her experiences.  On October 5, she will address the National Writers Union at the UAW Building in downtown Washing, D.C.  The next morning she will speak at Clubhouse Number 2 at Leisure World in Silver Spring, MD.

On October 22, at 2 p.m. she will speak about memoir writing at the Sherwood Regional Library, located at 2501 Sherwood Hall Lane in Alexandria, VA. And on October 23 at 8 p.m., she'll appear at the Quince Orchard Library at 15831 Quince Orchard Rd. in Gaithersburg, MD.  The events are free and open to the public.

Fuentes' book is available from publisher Xlibris Corp. for $14.40 in paperback or $25 hardcover.  T order, call toll-free, (888) 795-4274, ext. 113.  It is also available from such online booksellers as amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and borders.com, but may have to be back ordered.

 Click here for online book ordering information.

Senior Beacon, Oct. 2000