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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

They Made Herstory
HIAS Pioneers of Women's Rights

by Steven A. Bibb

This article appeared in Passages, the magazine of HIAS, The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, summer 2007.

We know of many HIAS immigrants and their children who played important roles in America’s development. While surely there were many, many such women who contributed significantly to the Women’s Rights movement ~ Bella Abzug, Emma Lazarus (who volunteered at HIAS), Wendy Wasserstein, Betty Friedan, and the legendary Emma Goldman are just a few who come to mind ~ we bring you three such pioneers who helped make herstory.

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Born in Berlin in 1928 to Polish parents, Sonia Pressman (who added Fuentes to her name when she married) fled with her family to the United States in 1933 to escape the escalating situation in Germany. After spending months in Antwerp, the family boarded the S.S. Westernland for the United States and arrived in this country on May 1, 1934. After HIAS helped the family to get settled in the Bronx, her father returned to the business he’d been in in Berlin and opened a men’s clothing store in Manhattan.

Unable to adjust to the pace of life in New York City, he relocated the family to the Catskill Mountains of New York. There, the Pressmans entered the summer resort business, first renting and running a rooming house in Woodridge and then building and operating a bungalow colony on 50 acres of land in Monticello.

Because Sonia’s English was superior to that of her parents, she handled all the family’s legal work, including the drafting of rental contracts, which ignited her interest in the legal profession. While in high school, at the urging of a classmate, Sonia applied for and was awarded a scholarship and made plans to attend Cornell University. Her parents were deeply opposed to her going to college and felt that a college education would “turn off any prospective suitors.” Despite these objections Sonia went and began her school career by majoring in languages, then switched to psychology and spent her senior year in the Graduate School of Business and Public Administration.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, Sonia moved to Long Beach, N.Y., to join her parents, who by that time had sold the bungalow colony. Sonia expected to be inundated with job offers, but they never came. Instead, she had a series of short-lived jobs, and, after seven months, she went to back to school, this time to study shorthand at a business college. She finished her shorthand course on a Friday and that Monday, she landed a job as a secretary. She worked as a secretary for four years, felt she was not living up to her potential and decided to go to law school. In 1954, she entered the University of Miami School of Law in Coral Gables, Fla.

After graduating first in her class, she went to work as a lawyer for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. In 1965 she got a job as the first woman lawyer in the general counsel’s office at the newly created Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC’s mandate at that time was to enforce a law that prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. The agency’s main goal was to fight discrimination against African Americans because the law the agency implemented grew out of the civil rights movement. In its first fiscal year, however, the agency found that allegations of sex discrimination constituted 37 percent of the charges filed.

At that time, few Americans were aware that there was such a thing as sex discrimination,” recalls Fuentes. “In my early speeches for the EEOC, any reference to ‘women’s rights’ was greeted with laughter. Words like ‘sex discrimination’ and ‘women’s rights’ hadn't yet become a part of our national vocabulary.” “At that time, men and women lived in two different worlds. A woman’s place was in the home. Her role was to marry and raise a family. She was not to have career ambitions, although she could work for a few years before marriage as a typist, clerk, secretary, telephone operator, schoolteacher, saleswoman, librarian, social worker or performer. When she had children, she was to raise her sons and daughters differently so that they too would conform to the socially acceptable gender roles.”

The EEOC moved very slowly on issues of sex discrimination or not at all, and this became very frustrating to Sonia, who by this time had become one of the most aggressive people on the staff of the EEOC with regard to the issues of sex discrimination. She had an opportunity to vent that frustration when Betty Freidan, author of The Feminine Mystique, came to the EEOC to conduct interviews for an upcoming book. Behind closed doors, the two women spoke. “I told her that this country needed an organization to fight for women like the NAACP fought for African Americans,” recalls Fuentes.

In June 1966 at a luncheon during the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women in the United States, Freidan and a small group planned an organization that subsequently became NOW (National Organization for Women). Its purpose, as written on a paper napkin by Freidan, 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, NOW had 28 members.

In October 1966, a second organizing meeting was held at which another 26 founders, one of whom was Sonia, adopted a statement of purpose and skeletal bylaws. NOW then embarked on an ambitious program of activities to get the EEOC to enforce the anti-discrimination law for women. As a result of pressure from NOW, the EEOC began to take seriously its mandate to eliminate sex discrimination. It conducted hearings and began to issue interpretations and decisions implementing women’s rights. As a result of NOW’s actions, the EEOC’s rulings, court decisions and the developments that followed, the status of women in this country began to change – not only with respect for employment, but in every area of society.

Sonia retired as an attorney with the federal government in 1993 and is now an accomplished public speaker and author. She will be honored this fall by the Veteran Feminists of America as one of the feminist lawyers who fought for women’s rights in the 1960s and ’70s. Sonia, who lives in Sarasota, Fla., says, “We've achieved a lot, but much remains to be done.

In my early speeches for the EEOC, any reference to ‘women’s rights’ was greeted with laughter. Words like ‘sex discrimination’ and ‘women’s rights’ hadn't yet become a part of our national vocabulary.” ~ Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Born in New York in 1933, Ruth Bader Ginsburg grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Her father, Nathan, had fl ed the pogroms of Odessa and arrived in the United States in 1911 with the help of HIAS. From an early age Ruth’s mother, Celia, proved to be a strong role model for her daughter. “My mother told me two things constantly,” says Ginsburg. “One was to always be a lady, and the other was to be independent.”

After graduating high school, Ruth attended Cornell University. While there she met Martin Ginsburg who would later become her husband. After graduating first in her class from Cornell, and her husband’s stint in the army, the couple enrolled at Harvard Law School. Ruth decided to attend law school “for personal, selfish reasons. I thought I could do a lawyer’s job better than any other. I have no talent in the arts, but I do write fairly well and analyze problems clearly,” said Ginsburg to the ACLU.

Law school for women in the 1950s was not the norm, and Ruth faced much adversary from professors at the school. At a dinner in honor of the nine female students enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1956, the dean asked each woman to explain why she was “occupying a student slot that should have gone to a deserving man.” Enraged by this comment, Ruth became determined to excel at law school. Despite that fact that she already had a baby daughter to care for, by the end of her first year she was appointed to the prestigious law review. Later, Ruth transferred to Columbia Law School, where she also made the law review, becoming the first women to achieve this honored position at two major schools. A year later, she graduated at the top of her class.

Despite being a star pupil, her grades did not help Ruth land a job in the law profession; not a single law firm in New York City offered her a position. “In the fifties, traditional law firms were just beginning to turn around on hiring Jews,” Ginsburg told NPR. “But to be a woman, a Jew and a mother to boot, well that combination was too much.” Professors at Harvard Law School proposed her to work as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, a fellow Jew, but the Justice admitted that he was not yet prepared to hire a woman.

Eventually she worked as a research associate at Columbia Law School before joining the faculty at Rutgers University Law School in 1963. When she discovered that her salary was lower than that of her male colleagues, she joined an equal pay campaign with other women teaching at the university, which resulted in substantial pay increases for all women on staff. While employed there, she became pregnant with her second child, and out of fear of losing her job, she hid her pregnancy by wearing baggy clothes. She later went on to become the first tenured female professor at Columbia Law School.

In 1972 she became an active participant in the American Civil Liberties Union, eventually becoming the first director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. During her time there she began representing cases before the Supreme Court, where she would eventually argue a total of six cases for women’s rights, winning five. The effect of these decisions was to change laws nationwide to reduce sex discrimination in hiring and to prevent job termination because of pregnancy. “Race discrimination was immediately perceived as evil and intolerable. But the response I got when I talked about sex-based discrimination was ‘What are you talking about? Women are treated so much better than men.’ I was talking to an audience that thought I was somehow critical about the way they treated their wives and daughters,” recalled Ginsburg.

In 1980 she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in the D.C. Circuit, and she remained in this position until 1993, when she was appointed by President Bill Clinton to succeed retiring Justice Byron R. White of the Supreme Court. During the confirmation hearings, she received the highest rating from the American Bar Association and was approved by a Senate vote of 96 to 3.

Ginsburg is considered to be a liberal on the bench, who is respectful of precedent and is hesitant to involve the court in political battles. She also takes a strong stand against the mixing of church and state. She continues to show a strong desire to continue to promote women’s rights, as in a case in 1996, when it was ruled that state funded Virginia Military Institute must open its doors to women.

At her confirmation hearing in 1993, Ginsburg said “In my lifetime, I expect to see three, four, perhaps even more women on the high court bench.” Now that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has retired from the bench, Ginsburg is the only woman left and, as she told USA Today, now fears that a woman justice is a “one time curiosity, not the normal thing.”

Cecilia Greenstone

Born in Bialystok, in Russian Poland in 1887, Cecilia led an unconventional life from an early age. Her father owned a cigarette factory in their hometown, and Cecilia would frequently be left in charge in her father’s absence. By the age of 12 she had gotten caught up in the Socialist spirit of the times and had succeeded in organizing the cigarette factory’s workers. Though the factory did not last, Cecilia’s career in social work and issues had already begun. Cecilia, fearful of the pogroms, joined the Socialist Zionists and would frequently protest on the streets. Soon the Russian government accused the group of being anti-government and the police began to raid their meetings in battles that became increasingly violent. In 1905 the family fl ed for America.

After arriving in New York, and turning down job offers until she could speak English, Cecilia went to the Astor Place Library (which would later become the headquarters for HIAS) determined to learn English. Spending hours on end at the library, she taught herself not just English, but also Hebrew, German and Yiddish, and eventually learned to speak seven languages. This feat brought her to the attention of the head of the Hebrew Division, where she became an assistant to the librarian. She later worked as a translator for the famed Jewish banker and philanthropist Jacob Schiff. It was while in this position that she came to the attention of the New York Section of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW,) an organization that worked hand in hand with HIAS.

Founded out of concern for the hundreds of thousands of single and unaccompanied young Jewish women who came through the port of Ellis Island, the NCJW feared that these young women might be “mislead into immoral lives, and other girls will be subjected to great dangers because of the lack of some directing and protecting agency at Ellis Island.” At the time, it was not uncommon for young, newly arrived female immigrants to be taken advantage of, and many fell into lives of crime and prostitution. It was the job of the NCJW “to make sure that the ‘uncle’ who was waiting to meet the immigrant girl was truly her uncle and not a procurer.”

“To rescue human dignity from this nightmare – that was the single thought my co-workers and I had,” recalled Greenstone in 1962. “To show them that in all the hard sorrow of their lives, they did not stand alone, and they did not have to succumb. To show them that if one person misuses or betrayed them, another would not; that their violated dignity could not be healed on the street, in theft, in drink, in drugs or suicide. To show them dignity could only be restored by that which a human does for oneself.

Beginning work in 1907, Greenstone would eventually work six days a week at Ellis Island, assisting single women, mothers and children through the immigration process. She personally intervened in countless cases where young women, who had been rejected by the health inspectors, were scheduled for deportation. She helped those, who because they could not speak enough English to answer inspector’s questions, were labeled “retarded” and set to be deported. She arranged for kosher food to be delivered to patients at the island’s hospital, and she established Shabbat and holiday services on the Island for Jewish immigrants. In 1910 alone the NCJW dealt with over 60,000 women and children, most of whom were helped by Cecilia.

In her spare time she taught English classes and arraigned socials, theater outings and events that would bring newly settled immigrants in touch with American life. She helped to arrange marriages for young women whose suitors were moral and upstanding citizens, and she helped young women find work. Her motto: “ jobs, not charity.”

By 1912 she was promoted to head agent for the NCJW on Ellis Island. A 1913 letter to an official at HIAS reads in part that “Miss Greenstone spends every cent of her salary to help the immigrants on the island… [She] renders her service without any regard to time or effort to any girl or woman who needs her service.”

In 1914 Cecilia was asked by HIAS to travel to Riga, in Russian Latvia to inspect a new facility that had been built by the Russian government to house Jewish immigrants that were awaiting passage to America. Given the special commission as a “delegate” to Russia, Cecilia traveled to Europe aboard the Kursk. It was an uneventful trip, but a day before they reached Liverpool, England declared war on Germany, and the path of the Kursk was diverted. Cecilia became a witness to the first naval battle of World War I.

By the time she returned to America, the number of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island was dwindling. With the war in Europe the number of immigrant arrivals dropped, from 875,000 in 1914 to 28,000 by 1918. After the end of the war, restrictive new laws limited the number of Jewish immigrants, and Greenstone was no longer needed at Ellis Island.

Greenstone later married and had two children, but always continued her career in social work, first at Hamilton House, then Henry Street, and later through the depression years and the second World War at the Grand Street Settlement. She later worked as a social worker at the Sons and Daughters of Israel Home. She died in 1971 at age 84.

She was a liberated woman in Russia,” recalled her great grandson Jesse Peterson, “running a cigarette factory, marching into a hail of bullets with the young Socialist Zionists and emerging as the matriarch of the entire Greenstone family. This was not a woman who would accept second-class status in any culture or country, and throughout her career, she fought it, both for herself and her fellow women. In America, she took up the same struggle against injustice that she had fought on the streets of her native Russia, but here, rather than protest; she would fight injustice as a social worker, caring for one victim at a time.