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  • Interviews of, and Articles about, Sonia


Interviews of, Articles about, and Books that Include Sonia

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Sonia Pressman Fuentes

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Jean Faust HD

Jean Faust

I was born in Tarboro, North Carolina, March 19, 1930, at the height of the Great Depression.

My father, George Dewey Satterthwaite (named after Admiral Dewey), was a tenant farmer who augmented his income by going around the area with his toolbox doing carpentry jobs.

Our family was saved from poverty by the Roosevelt New Deal, specifically the Resettlement Act which leased abandoned farms on long-term mortgages to families who needed a boost.

Eight of nine children born to my mother, Hattie Lee Bradley Satterthwaite, survived to become prosperous citizens. The little boy just before me died of pneumonia when I was an infant.

FDR New Deal

FDR signing New Deal Act 1933. Picture from FDR Library, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

My father tried several locations in the resettlement program and then settled into a farm on Blue Sky Road near Halifax, NC. The whole family worked very hard. Children who could not do farm work took care of smaller children and helped around the house, brought water, etc.

On Blue Sky Road, we had a cooperative system of working on crops like tobacco that were very labor intensive. One day we would work at one farm, another day we would go to a neighbor. The whole area was like a big family; all the boys were like brothers to me.

Farm work was extremely boring and repetitive, but the worst part was that we had to miss weeks of school in the fall to help with the harvesting. We grew corn and peanuts; the peanuts required a lot of handwork.

We went to school for the first six grades in Halifax, NC (historically interesting for the Halifax Resolutions, a precursor of the Declaration of Independence). There were two classes in each room, but the teachers were dedicated and anyone who worked could get a good education. (I found later that I had learned by the fifth grade all the grammar that I would ever need.) For eighth grade through twelve, we went to Weldon, NC, a few miles away.

During my first several school years, in Tarboro, we walked to school; I remember carefully stepping into my older siblings footsteps when there was heavy snow (no colorful boots for children in those days; one wore the same shoes year-round, usually handed down from older children). For Halifax and Weldon schools, there was a bus, but we missed a lot of school because the bus couldn't navigate the country roads when there was snow.

Women's Softball UniformIn Halifax, the majority of children were from neighboring farm areas (the town was very small). The highest grade was sixth, so the children hadn't developed the attitudes that I would later experience in high school. Between 10 and 11 years old, I had a growth spurt that changed me from the smallest child in the class to the tallest. During outdoor recess, the girls got angry because I played fullout. When we played softball, I knocked the ball out of the play-yard, across a ditch into a field. The girls would complain, refuse to go after the ball, so I would run around the bases, then run to get the ball. When I pitched, the girls couldn't hit the ball. The girls complained to the teachers and they found a solution. They took me over to the boys' area and asked the boys to let me play with them. That worked out so well the best boy player and I became unofficial co-captains and planned all the games. Mostly we would each choose a side, which provided for more balanced play; however, sometimes we would play on the same side and the others didn't have a chance. Mostly, we were fair, making sure the poorer players were distributed so that they wouldn't be a drag on either side too often. (There were some boys who should have played with the girls.) I was allowed to play any position I wanted, even to pitch.

I tell this story at length because I believe this early experience in equality started the spark of feminism in me. One who is treated equally with other humans will later chafe at the slightest inequality.

I also extended this fairness (there was no feminism then) into my family. When I was big enough to work in the fields, I did that and then, at the house, because I was the oldest girl at home (the older sisters left as soon as they finished high school), I helped my mother. Many times I would be ironing while my father and the other children relaxed. I simmered in this situation for a while, then one day I announced that I would do all housework during hours when everyone was working; thus, I did washing (with tubs and a scrubbing board and hanging clothes on a line outside), ironing, cleaning and any other household tasks while the others worked in the fields.

For seventh grade to twelfth, I transferred to Weldon, a bit larger town. There I ran into prejudice against children who came on the bus; the town children felt very superior and did not associate with us.

There was even a more serious problem; in the fall, farm children were kept out of school for weeks to help bring in the crops, especially the peanuts which had to be handled by hand. It broke my heart not to go to school, but as soon as I could go back I would get all my assignments from the teachers and catch up as soon as possible.

But I was completely surprised one day when a teacher drew me aside and asked if I could manage to get a white dress, that I was number one in the junior class and thus was to be the grand marshal at graduation, leading in the seniors.

I had learned to sew in Home Economics class so I just needed material. I had been carrying eggs to sell to the school cafeteria for my mother (a story in itself: think of the other kids teasing me while I sat on the bus protecting the box of eggs). She let me keep enough money from egg sales to buy material to make a dress. The next year I was valedictorian and had to make a speech, a very painful experience since I was extremely shy and knew the other children didn't want to hear a word from me.

Woman's College NC

Woman's College of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, NC

I had not even thought of going to college, as I knew there was no money. Again, a teacher helped; she gave me a check for $200 and said "some citizens of the town" were proud of me and wanted to give me a start for college (I was never to know who they were); she gave me all the materials to apply, as well as applications for scholarships. I had attended Girls State at Woman's College in Greensboro (later University of North Carolina at Greensboro), so I applied and was accepted. I decided I could work at school and summers as a waitress at beach resorts, and make it somehow. Waitressing was the hardest job I've ever done, exhausting, low pay, nasty bosses; but because it was for college I could do it.

Before I went to college, I gathered all my childhood things: papers, valentines, letters, etc.-everything that pertained to my childhood, took them out into the yard and burned them. While they were burning, I told myself I was leaving the old life and all its slights and difficulties behind; I forgave all insults, slights and indignities, whether from family or outsiders and consciously began a new life.

College was my element; studying and learning were heaven; I couldn't take enough classes, even had battles with deans and advisors who called me in to say I was taking too many classes. I was a double major in English and Drama with a minor in Education. I also wanted to take Art classes because it would be valuable for some of the work in Drama courses; there were huge objections-only Arts students could take Art classes.

Cage Cunningham

John Cage and Merce Cunningham

I spent my graduating summer, 1952, on staff at the Burnsville School of Arts, near Asheville, NC, working on every aspect of play production and helping with the students. The teachers were top grade; for instance, in music, John Cage; dance, Merce Cunningham. But my favorite was the Arts Director, Dr. Gregory Ivy; I used to discuss with him wanting to go for higher degrees but not having money; he told me to skip the degrees and just keep reading, that I could do well on my own as rules for degrees would limit me. (His art class was one that I had had to fight to take, as I wasn't an art major; he had agreed to let me in.)

My drama teacher at Greensboro got a job for me at Kannapolis, NC as English and Drama teacher; he had a theatrical business and had just shipped them a huge amount of equipment, the latest in lights, etc. and he had taught me to operate them. When I got there, no one had touched them; no one knew how to put a backstage area together; the principal borrowed some technicians from town businesses and I showed them how to set up all the equipment and started planning for play production. That part worked out fine; the students were excited and receptive and some of them benefited greatly from the experience.

The classroom was another matter; the students were well behaved but totally uninterested in school, in learning; they did the least they could do to get by. Some of them even turned in papers on plays they hadn't read (I suppose they thought I hadn't read the plays or maybe wouldn't read their papers). The principal was surprised when I didn't renew my contract.

One of my friends from drama classes in college, a girl from New Jersey who was living in New York trying to get acting jobs, invited me to visit her; I came to NY in October 1953 expecting to stay a few weeks, see some plays and go back home and look for work.

During this period, I went to a Christmas party hosted by an interesting young man named Irvin Faust, who was studying acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse. We began to see each other.

Elizabeth Arden

Elizabeth Arden. The Canadian-born Arden opened a New York salon on Fifth Avenue in 1910, installing the trademark bright red door to make her shop distinctive.

To maintain myself in NY, I took a temporary job at De Pinna, a department store at 52nd Street on Fifth Avenue. After Christmas, I registered with a temporary agency and worked at various businesses; when I worked for a few days at Elizabeth Arden, I was offered a permanent job. As was common for women in those days, I was paid very little and not offered advancement (later found that my immediate boss had not passed on to me promotion offers from the executive staff); later, I went to Mark Cross as Director of the Mail Order Department. They advertised in the Times, "Call our Miss Satterthwaite for all your gift orders." After a couple of years, I was promoted to Buyer. However, the unrelenting long hours (sometimes even on Sunday) of retail work wore me down and in 1962 I retired to have a rest and recover my health.

On August 29, 1959, I had married Irvin Faust. Having housewife duties added to my fulltime job had proved to be a strain as well. He had changed his career to Counseling, earned his Masters and Doctorate and gone from teaching to being Guidance Director at a Long Island High School. His doctoral thesis had been published by Teacher's College and his counselor told him he should write. So at night he worked on short stories. All the work of our life together, maintaining the apartment, paying the bills, taxes, etc. was left to me, as was the typing of his stories. After some of them were published, he began to get calls from publishers asking if he had a book. When it was time to prepare a manuscript of a book of short stories, there was no way I could do that and continue in my demanding job. I thought he was an original and authentic talent, so I resigned and applied myself to helping him with his manuscripts.

Those were days of great political turmoil, especially on the West Side of NYC where we lived; the Reform Democrats were replacing the old clubs. I joined one of the Reform clubs and quickly found that reform had not extended to equal rights for women. All the work of the club, especially mailings, was done by the women while the men stood around talking. Presidents were always men;

Jean Faust 1

Jean Faust (plaid dress) handing out flyers for Congressman William F. Ryan

secretaries were women. I watched these unreformed practices for about a year and then started talking to the women. I set up a committee on women's rights. We elected a woman as president and I was elected treasurer (having refused to run for secretary). Some of the men were furious about my activities, some were amused, a few were understanding, even sympathetic. A few women were active supporters, but many were reluctant, afraid of the men's disapproval.

One day during an election campaign, a man walked into the club and yelled, "We need a pretty girl to hand out literature." I went over and reproved him and suggested he should have said, "We need a person..." He countered, "No, we want a pretty girl; people are more likely to accept flyers from a pretty girl." I saw I couldn't convince him, but I accepted the assignment so I could see how the campaign was going on the street. That proved to be lucky for me, as after meeting Congressman William F. Ryan I became an aide to him on Environmental matters, which was quite new then as an area of interest-about 1963. The public was not much concerned and even most of his staff thought it was a waste of his time.

I don't know how I was on the list, but I got a postcard for the first meeting of NOW in NYC and couldn't wait to attend. It was a small group and we were asked to stand, give our names and occupations. Probably because I worked for the congressman, I was asked after that meeting to form the first chapter in NYC and act as first president.

Our first NOW meeting was February 6, 1967. As organizing president I prepared the Chapter Kit, held Chapter meetings; answered mail, sent mailings-all without benefit of office space, equipment, supplies-or secretary. Any available area of our small apartment was "office"; our phone was NOW's phone. Equipment and supplies were cadged where members worked; only stationery, stamps and paper were purchased. We had no expense account. Later, as we gained membership, there was limited reimbursement. My husband suffered many inconveniences because of my work with NOW-and paid for it, both in money and inconveniences. He also paid for my trips to meetings and conventions.)

Besides chapter meetings, committee meetings, projects and demonstrations, I spoke to women's groups and to schools and wrote articles for local West Side paper.

Now Logo 2

I handled mailings on NOW proposals for New York State Constitutional Convention (up to 10 pages, 200 packets-no copying equipment, no Xerox machine) to all delegates-about six times. I made appearances at hearings, did mailings to women's groups asking support for proposals. (In those early days, little support was forthcoming from women's groups; their causes were peace, anti-nuclear efforts and social issues such as care of children & poverty; they did not comprehend that there were women's issues.)

I met with newspapers, asking them to organize classified ads by job category rather than sex; organized demonstrations and work with EEOC and Human Rights Commission to persuade newspapers and led a demonstration against Nat'l Assoc. of Newspapers pub. because they appealed EEOC ruling in our favor.

In fall of 1967 I helped organize an action for Pauline Dziob, stewardess for Moore-McCormack Lines who had been denied job as yeoman because "it's a man's job"; she had done all the work while the man was ill.

That November I helped organize the NY chapter push at the National Conference for a strong stand on ERA and abortion rights.

That December I helped organize a demonstration againstthe EEOC for failing to act on women's problems and for denying permission to me and Betty Friedan to speak at New York hearings.

In January of '68 I picketed and attended EEOC hearings every day where I had to listen to claims that they were unable to find "qualified" women to testify.

All that year we were supporting the women who were suing Colgate-Palmolive, and, led by Barbara Love and Anselma del Olio, we worked all year to organize a touring demonstration with cars and signs, feminist filibusters and street theater, calling for boycott of C-P products.

In September of '68 I was alerted by Sonia Pressman, who worked at the EEOC, that the Senate Finance Committee sneaked an amendment onto a soil conservation bill that would allow large companies to treat men and women differently in retirement policies. Thus I made many phone calls and wrote letters to Finance Committee, senators, and congressmen to object to this attack on the rights of working women. (The real purpose was to allow companies to force women to retire earlier with fewer benefits.)

At request of Exec. Committee I led a debate against a change in NOW'S by-laws (a small group was calling for participatory democracy, rotating officers, etc.) and, also at request of Exec Comm., resumed presidency when NYNOW's second president, Ti-Grace Atkinson resigned. I then organized a mailing to assure national officers and other chapters that NOW-NY had not "split" as rumored, that work was continuing. This effort to replace the structure of NOW-NY with an unworkable, though idealistic, system was misguided and unfair; some members didn't seem to understand that holding office was work and responsibility.

By the end of 1967, I was exhausted mentally and physically, from the strain of running an "office" singlehandedly, writing (and typing-no word processors then) statements and correspondence-for two jobs. 1968 was an even bigger strain because of the small but energetic movement for changes in structure. But I was exhilarated to be working on the problems that blocked women from self-realization.

In February of 1960 during National Public Accommodations Week I demonstrated against For Men Only Restaurants and Bars. (What a good feeling that it now seems quite ridiculous that restaurants catering to businessmen once barred women.)

Also in February NOW joined the suit of stewardesses against United Airlines; we picketed with them in Chicago in a bitter wind; one girl whose supervisor objected to her small afro fared much better than her windblown sisters.

In March we demonstrated in front of Governor Rockefeller's office to support the Cook bill on abortion. I lectured at Hunter College on The Contemporary Woman and Her Impact on the Contemporary Male. Insisted both sexes would benefit from ending the oppression of women.

May of that year was Freedom for Women Week (Motto: Rights not Roses). We demonstrated at the White House in blistering heat-why did we always have extreme weather for demonstrations? Some women were terrified at taking this action, particularly lawyers and other professionals, for fear it would affect their career, but most of us were bothered by the men in dark suits carefully taking our pictures. We'd heard the FBI made files on anyone who picketed the White House.

EEOC logo

In August I testified in Washington at Dept. of Labor hearings on EEOC Enforcement Act. As a result of NOW's (and other groups) efforts, EEOC decided that Title VII supersedes State's Protective Legislation. (Dept. of Labor issued a similar ruling.) (State "protective" legislation had been designed to "protect" women from getting many jobs, thus protecting men's rights to keep them . I pointed out that women regularly lifted 20 pounds and more in the form of babies and children and asked him if he'd ever lifted a squirming 20-lb baby from a bath.}

Several times in 1969 I was asked to prepare materials for various media people who wanted to do articles or shows on women. All media continued to present feminists negatively.The jokes were contemptuous and threatening at once: Will women use Men's Rooms? Will men become Playboy Bunnies? Women leaders are described as "tireless talkers". A favorite tactic was to use famous women against feminists, usually women whose marriages had conferred position upon them or whose success rested upon approval by men. (For instance when I was speaking on a radio show, Claire Booth Luce called in to ridicule me; I'm sure it had been planned.)

At the end of 1970, WNEW-TV presented a program called "Women are Revolting"; when I wrote to protest the double meaning, I was told the show was intended to provide entertainment, not information.

Working at two jobs and running a household proved to be too much for my health; I had contracted tuberculosis while running congressman Ryan's local office for a few weeks while he was seeking an office manager; I spent two years coughing and running a fever, went to doctors who treated me for sinus problems. No one thought of testing for TB, since it was supposed to have been eliminated. I also have a form of anemia that can't be treated and an underactive thyroid, which doctors were unwilling to treat at that time (I later found one who treated it). Other health problems plagued me and in 1970 I found I had to retire from all outside work.

For a while, I had no activities except running our household. I had been going to performances of the New York City Ballet since it was formed and ballet had become a passion second only to my devotion to my husband. One night, around 1982, I found a note in the program that asked for volunteers . I called and started working a couple of days a week, doing various tasks, from data entry and filing to working the information tables during performances.

Around 1988, I moved over to the School of American Ballet, where most of the performers were trained, and was assigned many tasks related to data entry and maintaining student files. I loved watching the students progress; it was pleasant to work while hearing the music from various classes and peeking into doors as I passed along the halls.

I worked there two days a week until 2009, when Irv fell and cracked a disc in his back. I had to stay home and take care of him. He had other falls and other illnesses (strokes and a seizure) and became so weak that I have continued to stay home and care for him.