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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

The Making of a Jewish American Feminist: Sonia Pressman Fuentes

By Lisa Katz

Part 4: Book Synopsis - The Fight for Women's Rights

Two Worlds

Sonia began to work at the EEOC in July 1965, four months after it had opened for business. At that time, few Americans were aware that there was such a thing as sex discrimination.

In the 1960s, men and women still basically lived in two different worlds. Women were expected to marry and raise a family. Men were expected to support the family financially.

Before marriage, women could work as secretaries, saleswomen, teachers, telephone operators, social workers or nurses. In contrast, men could become presidents, legislators, generals, police chiefs, school principals, and corporate executives.

Most women conformed to society's expectations because deviants became social outcasts.

The Fight for Women's Rights

Sonia learned that not only was the country unconcerned with sex discrimination, but so were most of the people at the EEOC. The EEOC had been created in response to the civil rights movement. Most of the people at the EEOC did not want the Commission's limited resources to be diverted from the fight against discrimination based on race to that based on sex.

To everyone's surprise, in the EEOC's first fiscal year, about 37 percent of the complaints alleged sex discrimination, an area that had previously not received much attention.

These complaints raised new and difficult issues. Could employers continue to advertise in "Help Wanted--Male" and "Help Wanted--Female" columns? Could airlines continue to ground or fire stewardesses when they married or reached the age of thirty-two or thirty-five? Did school boards have to keep teachers on after they married or became pregnant? Did employers have to provide the same retirement benefits to men and women even though women as a class had longer life spans?

The EEOC moved very slowly in dealing with these complaints and issues, and this greatly frustrated Sonia. Sonia fought for aggressive enforcement of the sex discrimination prohibitions with the goal of expanding employment opportunities for women.

Through her work, Sonia came in contact with midlevel staffers at various government agencies who were also concerned with improving women's rights. Sonia and these other staffers formed an informal network. Sonia would share information about women's rights cases at the EEOC with this network. This information would then be relayed to feminist attorneys, who would represent the complaining parties in precedent-setting sex discrimination lawsuits.

Author Betty Friedan came to the EEOC to interview staff for her second book. Her first book, The Feminine Mystique, dealt with the frustrations of women who were housewives and mothers and did not work outside the home. Betty asked Sonia to talk about problems at the Commission. Sonia hesitated at first to speak about the Commission's derelictions. But, eventually, she told Betty that what the country needed was an organization to fight for women like the NAACP fought for African Americans.

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