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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

Feature

By Frankee Nesta
Photo by Evelyn England

West Coast Woman
May, 1997

Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

by Frankee Nesta

She's a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Cornell University, a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Miami School of Law. She was the highest-paid woman lawyer at the headquarters of such multinational corporations as GTE and TRW, Inc. and HUD; the first woman lawyer at the Equal Employment Opportunity commission (EEOC), in Washington, D.C., a volunteer at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), also in D.C.; a national and international spokesperson for women and equality; a survivor of caner; a single mother; and last, but definitely not least, she is a founding mother of the National Organization for Women. And now she makes Sarasota her home.

Who is this powerhouse of a person? This person who joined minds and hands with other women in order to open doors to a better life for so many women? She's Sonia Pressman Fuentes. And thanks to an invitation to visit Sarasota from her long-time friend Irene Herman, Fuentes is our neighbor.

Born in Berlin, Germany, she fled with her parents at the age of five to the United States to escape Hitler's mass imprisonments and genocide. Perhaps it was then that the seed was planted that would encourage Fuentes to grow into the strengths required for a lifelong sojourn to secure civil rights and the rights of equality for women. "From the age of ten, I had felt there was a purpose to my life, a mission I had to accomplish," said Fuentes, "and that I was not free as other girls and women were to simply marry, raise a family and to pursue happiness." Fuentes believes her drive to secure civil rights and the rights of women arose from three factors in her life: "I had been born only because my mother's favored abortionist was out of the country; my family fortuitously got out of Germany in 1933; and I was intelligent. To me that meant I had been saved in order to make a contribution to the world."

In 1961, when the sexual revolution was beginning to stir in the hearts of women from all walks of life, Fuentes was working as an attorney at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and says she was virtually unaware that President Kennedy had established the President's Commission on the Status of Women. It was not until 1963 that she became, by chance, interested in women's rights. "I became a volunteer for the ACLU in Washington, D.C., at which time the director asked me to prepare testimony for him to deliver before a committee of the House of Representatives in favor of an equal pay bill. The bill required that men and women be paid equally for the same work," said Fuentes.

Fortunately for Fuentes, and every other woman in the country, the director asked her to deliver the testimony herself. At age of 34, on March 26, 1963, Sonia Pressman (she had not married at this time) testified before the House Committee on Education and Labor. Later that year, the Equal Pay Act was signed into law.

Fuentes thought her work for women's rights was complete at this point, and took a position with the NLRB in California. But after only a year and a half she decided to return to the NLRB D.C. office. However, she felt she needed something more. "I felt driven to seek other employment," said Fuentes, "and I felt there was something else I was supposed to do." In 1965 that "something else" was a position no woman had ever held -- the first woman attorney at the EEOC.

At a time when the EEOC's main function was to design and implement guidelines and regulations on the meaning of Title VII, which insured our nation's civil rights, women's rights, i.e.,the prohibition of sexual discrimination, was barely included and rarely thought about. "There had been no movement for women's rights," said Fuentes. "Basically, the EEOC didn't know how women wanted these issues decided." However, a large percentage of the complaints filed with the EEOC were related to sexual discrimination. Still, in the area of sex discrimination the Commission moved slowly and conservatively. Fuentes said she became frustrated. She also became known as the staff person who stood for aggressive enforcement of the sex discrimination prohibition, which was not necessarily accepted or appreciated by others at the EEOC.

One day, when Fuentes was feeling particularly frustrated, Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, was interviewing EEOC officials for her new book. "I invited her into my office and told her I thought the country needed an organization like the NAACP to pressure the EEOC to enforce the law for women." Shortly after that meeting, in June of 1966, Fuentes, Friedan and 30 other women and men met in the basement of the Washington Post and adopted a statement of purpose and by-laws which would establish an organization that would become the foundation of a phenomenon known as the women's movement -- the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Sitting at her dining room table, listening to Fuentes provide stories that changed the lives of so many people, this unpretentious, non-complacent woman brought back memories of my own life and struggles during the late '60s and throughout the '70s, a time when I and so many women held onto every word of progress from organizers in Washington -- the women who were at the frontline of our fight for equality. And I closed my eyes briefly during the interview, remembering a time, and not too long ago, when a woman had so few choices, so little freedom or the chance to advance in her career. Can you remember just two decades ago, when a woman could not obtain a bank loan for a car, a house and certainly not a business without the signature of a cosigner, i.e., her husband, father or brother? A time when there was no Affirmative Action, which meant you most likely would not obtain a position you had applied for because the company wanted to hire a man, or no advancement in your job, no matter how qualified you were, because the job was given to a man instead? Can you remember when you performed the same duties in your job as your male colleague, only you were paid considerably less, even though you may have been a single parent raising a family, too? And remember when motherhood (the oldest and most important profession) or being a homemaker meant you didn't work?

Fuentes looked a little perplexed when she told me she had retired in 1993. "I was given many retirement parties, then I became depressed, thinking all that I had created in my career was gone." She had raised her daughter Zia, traveled the world lecturing on the rights of women, founded several organizations and served on the boards of countless others. She survived cancer and served as an attorney for the federal government for over 20 years and two major corporations for 10 years. And in November of 1996, at a ceremony honoring the founders of NOW, Betty Friedan presented her with the Veteran Feminists of America Medal of Honor. And now she is writing her memoirs. Retired? Hardly.

"It takes a great deal of energy, time and research when you're writing your memoirs," said Fuentes. And her memoirs are still a work in progress, though one may experience excerpts from her soon-to-be-published book, as she gives readings at facilities and organizations in the area. I read several excerpts from her collection, and I can not wait for her book of memoirs, Eat First -- You Don't Know What They'll Give You, to be available at bookstores.

On Mother's Day, when we are celebrating all the things our Mothers are or were, all they do and did for us, perhaps we should take a moment while we hug them or silently send them a prayer of love, and remember those women who made it possible for us to obtain our positions as business women, to receive equal pay for equal work, and to be better providers for our children. Perhaps say "thank-you" to the founding mothers who, through their diligence, sacrifice and passion for justice, created the organizations and laws which opened doors we were once not allowed to open, much less walk through. Happy Mother's Day, Sonia Pressman Fuentes, and thank you for being one of the mothers who fought for our liberation, and for teaching us that the hand that rocks the cradle must also rock the boat.

This article was originally published in West Coast Woman, May 1997; 16-17.