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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 Marlena Thompson

December 16, 1999

Marlena Thompson is a writer for the Washington Jewish Week

Some would say Sonia Pressman Fuentes spent a lifetime living "on the edge" of convention.  An immigrant who at age 5 came to this country with her family to escape the impending Holocaust, Fuentes grew up to become a pioneer of the second wave of feminism.  In fact, she was a founding member of the National Organization of Women.  

She married at age 42, later than most women of her generation, and chose a Puerto Rican man for a mate, not a typical choice for a Jewish woman passionate about her own cultural heritage.  But conventional people rarely make history -- and Fuentes undoubtedly helped change the course of history for women in this century.  Fuentes has not gone unrecognized.  In 1996 Betty Friedan presented her with the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA) Medal of Honor for her efforts to improve the status of women.  In October, Fuentes received the 1999 Women at Work Award for Wider Opportunities for Women, a nationwide organization based in Washington and dedicated to helping women achieve economic self-sufficiency. (Prior recipients of this tribute include Glenn Close, Jane Fonda, Katie Couric and Hillary Rodham Clinton.)

Fuentes, from Potomac, serves on the National Woman's Party board of trustees and on the board of the VFA and Jewish Women's Coalition advisory committees.  Since retiring in 1993 from a 36-year career as an attorney, Fuentes has been an active public speaker and writer.  Her latest achievement is her memoir, Eat First -- You Don't Know What They'll Give You; The Adventures of an Immigrant  Family and Their Feminist Daughter (XLibris, December 1999.)

In an interview, Fuentes believes that her immigrant experience affected her lifelong efforts to improve the status of women.

"I had to leave the country of my birth because I was discriminated against," says Fuentes.  "I was therefore sensitized to discrimination.  I was first of all sensitive to discrimination directed against African Americans.  I would drive down to Miami with my parents and pass through towns in the South that were 'restricted.'  As an immigrant, I was an outsider.  This made me even more aware of such restrictions and issues of discrimination toward other 'outsiders,' -- African-Americans, women, etc."

After coming to this country in 1934, Fuentes' family settled in New York's Catskill Mountains, a region famous for its many hotels and bungalow colonies to which Jews from "the city" flocked each summer.  Having lived in the Catskills in the '40s all year round, she describes her childhood as "lonely."

"I was living a mile and a quarter outside of Monticello.  It doesn't sound like a great distance, but I was cut off from my classmates," she said.  "My parents lived in a very Jewish milieu, which was comfortable, but I was cut off completely from the non-Jewish world."

This cultural isolation affected Fuentes.

"When I went to Cornell years later," she said, "I met non-Jews for the very first time.  I was very excited by the new world opening up to me.  I even went through a state when I didn't want to be Jewish.  Of course, that changed a very long time ago.  Now I glory in being Jewish."

The problem of wife beating within Jewish families has received a great deal of attention lately, both in Israel and in this country.  Fuentes concedes she lacks extensive knowledge on the subject but notes that, in general, wife beating was not discussed openly among women who were her generational peers.  "In my time, neither Jewish nor non-Jewish women talked openly about the negative aspects of their marriages," she said.  "Disclosing a failure within a marriage was tantamount to an admission of personal failure.  Of course, it's different these days."

Charles Duncan, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's former general counsel referred to Fuentes, who drafted many of the EEOCs landmark guidelines, as "one of the great unsung heroes of the women's and civil rights movements."  Duncan says Fuentes [was] very important in getting leaders "to take sex discrimination seriously."  Hardly faint praise from the former dean of Howard University School of Law.

"I first went to the EEOC, which had only about 100 people at the time, to fight discrimination," Fuentes said.  "At the staff level, I was the most outspoken about women's rights.  I was also in a position to do something about it.  The Civil Rights Act, prohibiting employers to discriminate because of race, color, religion, national origin or sex, had just been passed in 1965."

Fuentes is modest.  She almost ascribes her accomplishments to the fact she happened to be "in the right place at the right time."  But those who know history also know that most people given a chance to change a deplorable status quo, even those fortuitously placed in time and situation, will opt to walk the well-trodden path of least resistance and do nothing.  After reading her memoir, the reader will understand that "doing nothing" has never been an option for Sonia Pressman Fuentes.

Washington Jewish Week, Dec. 16, 1999