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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

Feminist champion was 'saved for a purpose'

by Jacqueline Sternberg

April 28, 2005

This Interview is from Washington Jewish Week

At a gala dinner in the District, the American Immigration Law Foundation in Washington, D.C., honored four Greater Washington residents -- all immigrants to the U.S. -- who, in their respective fields of education, science, business and activism, have made outstanding contributions to the nation, and to humanity.

The four honorees included three men and one woman -- a gender ratio that is a bit ironic, perhaps, considering that the woman lauded was Potomac's Sonia Pressman Fuentes, a lifelong activist for women's rights, co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and Federally Employed Women (FEW) and no stranger to standing up to represent women in a man's world.

Born in Berlin 76 years ago to Hinda and Zysia Pressman of Poland, Fuentes immigrated to the United States with her parents in 1934. In her address at last month's dinner, Fuentes remembered her family and pointed to a determining factor behind her lifelong dedication to civil rights: the Holocaust.

"My fortuitous escape from the Holocaust left me with the feeling that my life had been saved for a purpose," she said, crediting the foresight of a much-older brother, Hermann, for getting her parents to leave their home in Germany in 1933 and move with the then 4-year-old Sonia to Belgium. A year later, the family immigrated to America.

Fuentes found that purpose, she went on to tell the group, in 1965 when she joined the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel, and found it again the following year when she joined with Betty Friedan and others to form NOW.

But her drive and commitment to better the lives of others -- particularly women -- started earlier, glimpses of which she captured in her humorously written memoir, Eat First -- You Don't Know What They'll Give You (Xlibris, 1999).

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell University in New York in 1950 and from the University of Miami School of Law, first in her class of 1957, she worked on a volunteer project for the American Civil Liberties Union, writing a paper in support of an equal pay bill that the director of the ACLU's office in Washington, D.C., was to deliver to Congress.

Instead, Fuentes took the issue before the House Committee on Education and Labor in March 1963, after the director suggested she do so because of her zeal for the subject.

Two years later, she was hired as the first female attorney on the staff of the EEOC.

In her work with EEOC, Fuentes helped draft many landmark guidelines and decisions that came out of that office, enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. (Fuentes points proudly to her work that helped force the airline industry to stop discriminating against flight attendants based on age and marital status, and ensuring maternity leave and other rights protecting pregnant women workers.)

She went on to work for two multinational corporations, GTE (General Telephone Electronics) Service Corp. in Stamford, Conn., the largest U.S. telephone company, after AT&T, where she worked in the legal department; and TRW, Inc. (Thompson-Ramo-Woolridge) in Ohio, which dealt in automotive parts, electronics and defense systems, where she was an executive in the company's EEO office, in charge of enforcing affirmative action.

In both firms, Fuentes became the highest-paid woman on staff.

Fuentes has also traveled the world, speaking out for women's rights throughout the United States, in Europe and in Asia.

Asked in a telephone interview what led her to champion women's rights, Fuentes mentioned something that she did not bring up in her address at the AILF, but which also acknowledged the influence of her family.

"My mother had seven abortions -- as a form of birth control," said Fuentes, explaining that, while "it was not the fashion" for women of her mother's culture to resort to abortion so routinely, it certainly was something that well-to-do women could do. Yet, she had Fuentes.

"I knew I was saved for a purpose since I was 10 years old," said the divorced Fuentes, who has one daughter of her own.

Fuentes also spoke briefly about her diagnosis of breast cancer in 1990, and subsequent treatment, which "left a lasting impression [on me]," she said. But, 15 years into remission, she is still apparently showing evidence of having been saved for a purpose.

Perhaps that purpose now is to make her name and role in the women's movement become as well known to a younger generation as those of other feminist-authors of her era, such as Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and the late Susan Sontag.

To this end, three projects are in the works that will reveal Fuentes' story, as told in Eat First, and her role in the women's movement.

Later this year, Fuentes will be featured in an online exhibit on Jewish women who have been influential feminists, as part of a commemoration of 350 years of Jewish life in America by the Jewish Women's Archives, based in Brookline, Mass.

Also later this year, a New Jersey playwright, Robert Carr, 58, hopes to produce a one-woman play he is writing, based on Fuentes' memoir, for off-Broadway. Carr, who runs a corporate trade firm in New Jersey and is not Jewish, has written other plays based on Jewish themes that have appeared off-Broadway (The Secret Annex, 1995, based on the story of Anne Frank, and Esther's Song, 1997, about a Jewish family's flight from Poland in World War II).

He said that he was drawn to Fuentes' book because of its immigrant and relationship themes -- and also because of its humor.

"It's quite funny ... laugh-out-loud funny in places," he said of Fuentes' book, remarking that, while he was kept laughing over the material in her book, he also learned a lot about her pivotal role in the women's movement, something he said he had never been aware of before.

And, because of her humor, he said he felt he could write a play that would transcend being just another play, "telling women of a certain age about the women's movement, relationships, things they already know."

A film about the women's movement of the 1960s and '70s is also in the works, and will feature Fuentes among other prominent women's rights activists of that era. Being created by 42-year-old Jennifer Lee, an independent filmmaker in California, the documentary, The Second Wave, is planned to be released to TV and movie theaters next year.