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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

Interview

by Lynn Laframboise

February 2000

This interview appeared in The Lariat, the newsletter from Word Wrangler Publishing, February, 2000.

LYNN: How did you feel when you arrived in America? Do you recall? Were you very excited? Did you feel different, then, arriving from Germany?

SONIA: I'm sorry to have to say I have no recollection of it at all. I was not yet six years old. First thing I really recall is going to kindergarten or first grade and feeling different from other children because my mother didn't know how to dress me in the current styles for American children. I recall something about her having me wear longer socks than the other children and feeling embarrassed about that--and her overprotecting me, which was also embarrassing. But I have no recollection about arriving in the U.S. I didn't feel different on arrival (or can't really say how I felt) as, unfortunately, I can't recall it. However, since you've read my book, you know that when I got to the Catskills, I did always feel like an outsider because of being Jewish; coming from another country; having older European parents; moving to different places so I didn't have the opportunity of growing up with a group of kids; and, in Monticello, living out-of-town so I couldn't participate in get-togethers with other kids easily. 

LYNN: Seems to me you already had two strikes against you becoming an attorney, because you are a female Jew. What kept you motivated?

SPF: Several things. One was I didn't feel I was getting anywhere in other aspects of my life--was working as a secretary, no successful love life--so felt if my life was going to amount to anything, I better do something about it. Then, as I mentioned in my book, because I was saved from an abortionist, was saved from the Holocaust, and was bright, I felt I had been saved in order to do something, contribute something to the world--and before I attended law school, I did not feel my life was moving in the direction where I could do that. 

LYNN: Did you feel loved and supported by your parents as you traveled around the country attending college and law schools or did you feel you were only an obligation to them? 

SPF: My parents would have killed themselves if they would have thought it might be helpful to me for ten minutes. They were utterly and totally devoted to me. Never ever did I think I was any sort of obligation to them--and I am sure such an outrageous thought never occurred to them I'm not even sure I understand your question. Why would my going to college and law school in other cities make me an obligation to them? Sure, they paid for it--but that was never anything that bothered them. 

LYNN: My grandmother would be about your age and I recall some of her stories. It seems to me, that because she was expected to stay at home, marry, have lots of babies, and cook all day, anything else was troublesome for her parents. I guess I was trying to ask if you ever felt like their life was poorer because of your choices. 

SONIA: I wouldn't say poorer, but my parents' only desire for me was for me to marry (preferably at 18) and raise a family. They were opposed to my college and law school education (but paid for it and even facilitated my law school education by moving to North Miami Beach, Florida) because they feared it would make it more difficult for me to find a suitable husband. My father never lived to see me married; my mother did and was very fond of my husband and I'm delighted she got to spend some time with my daughter, Zia. So, yes, it was very difficult for my parents to have a daughter whose goals and life were so different from what they were used to traditionally. But I must say I never gave their goals for my life much thought (and I guess most young people are like that). I felt I had a responsibility to do the most with my life that I could and no responsibility to fulfill my parents' desires in that connection. Of course, I felt many other responsibilities to my parents, whom I loved dearly, but not to live my life according to their wishes. 

LYNN: With your being involved so heavily in women's rights, surprisingly, you were also mistreated on occasion. Do you feel you could have done more for your own battles with discrimination concerning employment and other matters?

SONIA: Perhaps. There was an incident in my life where I was fired and it was for a discriminatory reason. I hired a lawyer and worked out a settlement with the company that was as good as I could have gotten. I had the option of filing a claim against the company with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and also taking them to court. But that would have taken years, would have cost money if I'd had to go to court, and might have kept me from getting hired at other places in the future. So I did not do it. People have often come to me for advice on whether they should file charges of discrimination and I always tell them that avenue is open to them but it has its risks. Sometimes people are so upset with what has been done to them, they go ahead, either for themselves or for others and file charges of discrimination. Those people are heroes to me. On this occasion, I was not that heroic. I had to support myself and my daughter at the time. When it happened, I asked three knowledgeable friends what to do; they all advised hiring a lawyer and making the best settlement I could and that's the course I took. Of course, I did not just slink into the night and do nothing either--which was another option. 

LYNN: Have you ever felt that being a Jew hindered your progression? 

SONIA: I have personally never felt that way. But, of course, when you are not hired or something else does not happen to you for a discriminatory reason, often you don't know that. In the past, of course, Jews were not hired for most corporate jobs at any decent levels and in a number of industries. Whether that affected me in my early job-hunting, I really don't know. 

LYNN: What are some significant things you can share about your religion? 

SONIA: It's difficult to share your feelings about something as broad as the religious group to which you belong. First of all, I should make it clear that my attachment to Judaism is my attachment to the Jewish people and culture--I am not a religious person and consider myself a secular Jew. I do love belonging to a people that's been around for thousands of years. What I love about Jews as an ethnic group and the culture are the Yiddish language, the love of learning and the adoration of books, the belief that what one does in this world (rather than in the hereafter) is primary, the sense of humor and wit, Jewish music and songs, celebrating Jewish holidays, like Passover and Chanukah, and the belief that we owe our children a great deal. Much of this is, of course, also applicable to other groups and religions. 

LYNN: Your triumphs have had an impact on all our lives. Do you feel important? (Mentioned in the book, you always felt as if you were born for something important, but you appear to downplay your own achievements.) 

SONIA: I can't say that I feel important. I am delighted that through my book people are coming to know about the lives of my parents and me. That is a lovely thing. 

LYNN: You mentioned  traveling to many countries to speak. Which ones, do you feel, were worst in treatment of their women? 

SONIA: I've been to England, Germany, France, Spain, Thailand, Singapore, China, Japan, Indonesia, Israel, and the Philippines. And I didn't spend enough time in any of them to become an expert on the treatment of women there. Generally, however, today, the status of women in Third World countries is still horrendous. If I had to pick the worst country for women in the world today, I'd pick a country I haven't been to but have read and heard much about: Afghanistan under the Taliban. 

LYNN: What are the most important advances of women in the last 50 years? 

SONIA: I'd say achieving control over their own bodies through birth control; access to higher education; access to jobs previously closed to them; more access in the political arena, to the ministry and the rabbinate, and in the military, including admission to military academies, like West Point; more equality in sports; more equality in pay; more equality in criminal law; and better laws of divorce, child support and child custody, and in all areas of life. Women (and men, when they are the subjects of sex discrimination) now can file charges of discrimination with federal, state, and local agencies, and go to court. In the past, there was no recourse for victims of sex discrimination and sexual harassment. We have had nothing less than a legal revolution in this country since the mid-60s and a concomitant revolution in the rights of women. 

LYNN: And what do you predict to be the next steps for us?

SONIA: I have no skills at predicting the future, but I hope women will continue to build on the rights that have been secured and will go on to play an ever wider role in making the US and the world a better place in which to live. We have much work to do in improving conditions for women (including homeless and battered women), children, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and minorities worldwide. We need to learn more about the relations between men and women in the 21st century and try to cut down on our rate of divorce. I hope these things will happen in the future. 

LYNN: What do you feel your greatest accomplishment has been? 

SONIA: If I can give three, I'd say giving birth to my daughter, Zia, and raising her to be a responsible member of society; my part in implementing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and writing my memoirs so people today and in the future will know what happened in my part of the past. 

LYNN: Any regrets? (career, relationships you may have slighted, etc.) 

SONIA: I tend to focus on the present and future and not spend too much time on the past, but I regret not having had a successful, sustained relationship with a man in my life.  However, no one has everything. And when I think of my many blessings, I feel very fortunate indeed. 

LYNN: You've told us of many "notable" people. Who was your favorite glamorous person you encountered? And why? 

SONIA: I don't know that I've encountered any glamorous persons. One of my favorite people was Sam Kaplan, a chicken and egg merchant who gave me and my roommate a ride one day when we were hitchhiking from Monticello back to Cornell. He was a lovely man and one chapter in my memoirs is about him. People who were very dear to me were Ethel and Joe Kooperman, a husband-and-wife legal team who represented my parents and were dear friends to me. I have very warm feelings for Minnette Massey, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, who was responsible for my entire career by setting up my first interview with an agency of the federal government when I was attending law school. I am grateful to Sara Fisher, a writer and editor, who suggested I write my memoirs in the style in which I did. 

LYNN: A personal question. Do you feel you were more prepared (for motherhood) than most new mothers by waiting until later in life? 

SONIA: I was totally unprepared for motherhood. And I was equally totally unprepared for marriage. One of the things our society doesn't do is prepare people for those two most significant relationships. If you want to hire someone to do electrical work at your house, you don't do so before determining that person is a qualified electrician, has had training, experience, etc. But anyone is allowed to marry or become a parent with no qualifications whatsoever. 

LYNN: Do you think  your age or educational background influenced Zia's life in a positive or negative way? I guess, as mothers, we all pretty much like to think that what we've done for our children in pursuit of happiness for them has had a positive impact. 

SONIA: I think all parents and their lives have an incredible impact on their children--both negatively and positively. I think Zia would have preferred a mother who was home with available time more than I was and who was more focused on her to the exclusion of other people and activities than I was. Although she was always very important to me, there were also other facets to my life. I know she would have preferred that I raised her exclusively without housekeepers. This I was unable and unwilling to do. I would like to think that she's also proud of what I've done with my life. I am certainly very proud of her. I have recently developed a theory that no parent meets the child's idealized view of a parent and vice versa. 

LYNN: Perhaps you could answer how your upbringing influenced the way you raised Zia 

SPF: I don't know how much I consciously tried to influence her. I think the biggest influence on a child is not what you say but how you live your life. I did always teach Zia that one does not have to conform to authority if it goes against one's conscience but that in those cases, one must be prepared to pay the price for such nonconformance. Zia grew up in a home where both parents had had college educations (or more), where her mother was a career woman and loved working, where her mother was a liberal Democrat and had liberal ideas, where Judaism, ethics and honesty were valued and where friends and family were important. I believe all those were positive influences for her. I know it has been helpful for her that I spent 23 years in the federal government and 12 in multinational corporations. She frequently discusses with me issues that come up in her working life and it's a plus for her that I am able to share similar experiences from my past with her. When Zia and I were preparing for her bat mitzvah with members of the Jewish Secular Community in Cleveland, Ohio, the group did an experiment where each of us was to write down which of our parents' traits and ideas we followed in our own lives and which we discarded. It was interesting to me how many of my parents' characteristics and ideas I followed and how many I totally disregarded. So we take some things from our parents and discard others--and that's as it should be. 

LYNN: Given the opportunity to reach another dream, why did you choose to write your memoirs rather than fiction? 

SONIA: I  didn't have a choice. I have no imagination and can only write about what I have personally experienced or researched. Many years ago, realizing that people who write books with a large sex content make a lot of money, I decided to try my hand at writing such a book. I went to the typewriter, put down everything I knew about sex, and had a very short paragraph. 

LYNN: Last one. What would you tell young women (or other minority groups) aspiring toward change? 

SONIA: Join an organization that's working towards the same goals you are. It is very hard to accomplish change on one's own but there is a great deal one can accomplish working with like-minded people. 

Word Wrangler Publishing, Feb. 2000