Sonia Pressman Fuentes
Lawsuit filed on Feb. 29, 2016, against North Carolina school with dress code that discriminates on the basis of gender
For many years, Sonia answered questions with regard to women's rights and women's history on a website called allexperts.com. (That website went out of business in 2017.) In June 2015, she received an email from a woman named Bonnie Peltier who had found her on allexperts.com and was seeking her assistance. Ms. Peltier, a single mother of a boy and girl in elementary school had moved to Leland, North Carolina where she believed the charter school would provide a better education than the school they had been attending--only to find out after her children were enrolled that the school had a policy that prohibited female students and teachers from wearing slacks or pants and required them to wear skirts or dresses. She believed this policy amounted to unlawful gender discrimination, couldn't get any other parents or any teachers to join with her in fighting the policy, and asked Sonia for help.
When Bonnie told Sonia about this policy, Sonia had trouble believing that a public charter school in the year 2015 would have such a policy--but indeed it did.
Sonia contacted her friend, Sue Klein, an expert on discrimination in education under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 who is with the Feminist Majority. Sue referred Sonia to Amy Katz, an ACLU attorney with whom Sonia had been in contact in the past on other matters. Amy secured the assistance of additional lawyers who worked on the case.
The lawsuit was filed on the afternoon of Feb. 29, 2016, and two other parents joined Bonnie as plaintiffs. You can read about it here.
The case is pending in the Eastern District of North Carolina, Southern Div.
Sonia was one of forty-nine men and women who founded NOW at two meetings in Washington, D.C. in June and October 1966. A picture taken at the October 1966 meeting is here. Not all those in the picture were founders.
For several months beginning at the end of 2009 and continuing through the early part of 2010, Sonia did research on the founders of NOW as there was no definitive information on how many there were, who they were, and how many of them survived. On March 10, 2010, her article on her conclusions entitled, "The Founders of NOW," was published on the community blog of feministing.com
Sonia concluded that there had been forty-nine men and women who founded NOW at meetings in June and October 1966. The largest number of founders (fifteen) came from the Washington, DC, area (Washington, DC; Virginia, and Maryland). New York State was next with thirteen, and Wisconsin third with eight.
In July 2012, Sonia decided to update her 2009-2010 research. Her conclusions as of July 31, 2012, forty-six years after the founding of NOW, were that there were nine surviving members (18% of the founders), the oldest of whom, Mary Lou Hill, would turn ninety-five in the fall of 2012. Next was Dr. Carl Degler at ninety-one.
Dr. Carl Degler died at the age of ninety-three on December 27, 2014. On Oct. 10, 2015, Mary Eastwood died at the age of eighty-five. Sonia has not updated her research since 2012. Based on the knowledge she has, there are now seven surviving founders of NOW of the original forty-nine.
Information on NOW’s founders and early strong supporters, much of which is based on Sonia's research, is available on NOW’s website.
Sonia Quoted in Cornell University's Curfews, Chaos, and Champions:The Unique Story of the Cornell Class of 1950 (2015)
In 2015, Cornell University published a 198-page coffee-table size book in commemoration of the 65th reunion of the class of 1950, Sonia's class. The book is titled Curfews, Chaos, and Champions and is subtitled The Unique Story of the Cornell Class of 1950. The book was written by Brad Edmondson and edited by John Marcham and Marion Steinmann. (The co-editors were members of the class.) The book contains contributions from more than one hundred class members and friends.
The book states that the entering class of 1950 contained 1,956 students, 18 percent of whom were women.
Sonia is quoted three times in the book. Those quotations follow.
Chapter 2. Born in Chaos: 1945-46, pp. 25-26.
Sonia Pressman Fuentes '50
I was the valedictorian of my high school class, and because of that, I was awarded two scholarships to Cornell. I moved into the top floor of Balch IV, a beautiful stone dorm. I had a solo room, too. I had no idea that other students were living in sheds and attics. I assumed that all Cornell students lived in luxury.
I was raised in a bungalow colony in the Catskill Mountains of New York, a mile and a quarter away from a small town, so I was totally inept when it came to social matters. I was good at going to school, but outside of classes, I knew nothing. I didn't know how to dress, I wore thick glasses, and the first year I wore braces on my teeth, so I never smiled. I never had a sister or someone else to tell me how to be charming or fix my hair. I was not very much in the world.
I also had never visited a college campus before arriving on East Hill. I was totally unprepared for the vastness of it. I had seen movies where a college was a single building, so I thought that's what it would be like. We got to Ithaca and stopped at a house, which turned out to be a fraternity house, and I asked a man on the steps where Cornell was. He spread his arms out wide and said, "This is all Cornell." I was completely taken aback. Suddenly I was in this place where everyone else seemed so sophisticated.
Sonia Pressman Fuentes earned a bachelor of arts degree and went on to earn an LLB from the University of Miami in 1957. As an attorney, she worked on sex discrimination cases for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the 1960s. She was also a charter member of the National Organization for Women.
Chapter 4. Containing Women: Rules for the Fairer Sex. p. 48.
Sonia Pressman Fuentes '50
My parents were refugees who had fled from Hitler. They made great sacrifices for me, but they were also European and very proper. This caused a problem when my parents visited me one weekend during my freshman year. They left my room on Saturday night, and they were going to return the next morning. When Sunday morning came I heard all kinds of shrieking. Then my father barged in and told me to pack up, because we were going home. The shrieking was because men weren't allowed upstairs in the dorms.
The problem occurred because the night before, my parents went out the back door. The Balch dorms had a big area in the back where boys and girls kissed each other goodnight after their dates. So my parents walked outside on Saturday night and saw all of these young couples kissing and hugging. My father concluded that Balch was a whorehouse, and I could not remain there. I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to leave, but I had never said no to my father before.
At that moment the housemother, Helen Armor, did me a wonderful service. She had heard all the screaming, so she came into the room. She was a very strong woman, a strong moral presence. She invited my mother and father to tea in her apartment, right then and there. She turned my father around, and I was allowed to remain.
It's funny that I never questioned the position of women at Cornell, because I have always been inclined to act when I perceive an injustice. After all, my parents were chased out of Europe because they were Jews. And from the age of ten on, my parents and I would drive from the Catskills to Miami Beach every winter. We were powerfully affected by the racial discrimination we saw when we were driving through the south. In the 1960s, I became a leader of the women's movement. But when I was a student at Cornell, it never occurred to me that women were being discriminated against. I was interested in getting an education and fitting in, so I accepted things.
I mean, why don't dogs wear clothes? You could come to me all upset because dogs are running around naked, but in my world, dogs don't wear clothes and it isn't a big deal. That's what it was like. It was just the way things were. I didn't see it as sex discrimination until the 1960s.
We also had freedoms that young women today don't have. In my second or third year I was very homesick, and my parents were in Miami Beach for the winter. I suggested to my roommate, Eleanor Stevens, that we hitchhike down and back to Monticello to see my friends. Stevie said yes, so we went out to the side of the road in our blazers and skirts on Saturday morning and stuck out our thumbs. I had hitchhiked a lot to get around in high school. In the world when I grew up, hitchhiking wasn't considered outrageous behavior for girls.
I had a wonderful time at Cornell. My idea of fun was sitting around talking about philosophy and other big issues in bull sessions with my friends. I became very close to a half-dozen other women who lived on my floor at Balch. It was a little sanctuary. We called it Seventh Heaven.
Chapter 12. "Any Person": Jews, Blacks, Greeks, and Watermargin. pp.149-150.
Sonia Pressman Fuentes '50: I grew up in a bungalow colony my parents owned in the Catskills, and all of my family's close friends were Jewish. We knew non-Jews, of course, but we didn't let them become too close. We were prejudiced.
My mother used to warn me about what would happen if I married a Gentile. She would say, "He might be nice to you for thirty years. Then one day, you'll be having a fight, and he will look right into your eyes and call you a dirty Jew." My parents felt that those lines should never be crossed, and while I was living in their home, I never questioned them.
When I came to Cornell, I saw a much larger world, and I wanted to be a part of it. I met wonderful people and wondered why I had been cut off from them. For my second year in Balch, I asked someone to be my roommate because she was half Jewish. But as the year went on I became close friends with a Greek classmate, Florence Maragakes [Roukis], and eventually I asked her to be my roommate instead. I liked Flo better. She was a lovely person. The fact that she was not a Jew no longer seemed relevant.
Of course, there were ignorant people, too. I remember hearing a story about a woman from Texas who came to Cornell and was surprised when she met Jews because she thought they had tails. I would joke with my friends about this. I'd tell them how nice it was to have a tail.
On June 26, 2015, the following customer review by Sonia appeared on the website of amazon.com with regard to the book: They Dared to Dream: Florida Women Who Shaped History by Doris Weatherford (pub'd May 26, 2015).
By Sonia on June 25, 2015
Chapter 9: Agents of Change, 1961-1980 of this book includes a paragraph that discusses the formation of NOW (National Organization for Women). I was a co-founder of NOW, which was founded by forty-nine men and women at two meetings in Washington, D.C. in June and October 1966.
Page 391 of Chapter 9 of this book contains the following paragraph: "NOW began as a direct result of President Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women. At a meeting of that body in Washington, some members expressed their frustration about working within government constraints and they formed NOW on October 29, 1966."
That paragraph is replete with factual errors. First of all, the author confused President Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women, which the President established in 1961, with the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women, which met in Washington, D.C. in June 1966.
In the latter part of 1965 or early in 1966, I met with Betty Friedan in my office at the Office of the General Counsel at the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; I was the first woman attorney in that Office.) and told her that what this country needed was an organization to fight for women like the NAACP fought for its constituents. This was because during its first year or so, the EEOC was not enforcing the sex discrimination prohibitions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was its mandate. That act prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin by covered employers, employment agencies, and labor unions.
At that June 1966 meeting, the women attendees became incensed when they were told that they did not have the authority to pass resolutions demanding the reappointment of EEOC Commissioner Dick Graham (who was a feminist) and the enforcement of Title VII for women. (The reason they couldn't pass resolutions was that the conference was being held under the aegis of the Labor Department and one federal agency cannot pass resolutions telling another federal agency what to do.) At a luncheon on the following day, Betty Friedan and a small group of women planned an organization that subsequently became NOW and Betty wrote its purpose on a paper napkin. By the end of the day, twenty-eight women had each tossed $5 into a war chest and those twenty-eight were NOW's original founders. At a subsequent organizational conference held in Oct. 1966, also in Washington, D.C., where men and women were present, a statement of purpose and skeletal bylaws were adopted and at this meeting twenty-one additional men and women, of whom I was one, joined NOW, and NOW was formed with forty-nine members.
That is an accurate portrayal of the founding of NOW, which, sadly, is at considerable odds with what is contained in chapter 9 of this book.
Sonia's memoir was included in the Holocaust Remembrance Day program of the Al Katz Center on April 27, 2014.
Back Story to the Writing of "Trailblazers: First-Ever Women Editors in Chief of a Law Review"
In April 2009, I was at the law school of my alma mater, Cornell University, to give a talk there at the invitation of Cynthia Bowman, a feminist and a professor at the law school. Before my talk, Cynthia took me on a tour of the law library, during which she showed me an exhibit under glass on a table about Mary Donlon Alger, who the exhibit stated had been the first woman editor in chief of a major law review (in the 1940s) in the U.S.
By coincidence, two weeks after this, my California friend, Lynn Ruth Miller, sent me an article from the Stanford Law Review about Brooksley Born, a prominent woman lawyer who had graduated from the Stanford Law School. In reading the article, I was surprised to see that it stated that Ms. Born was the first woman editor in chief of a major law review in the U.S. I immediately contacted Cynthia and told her the exhibit on Mary Donlon Alger had gotten it wrong. She told me that the Stanford Law Review got it wrong and that Mary Donlon Alger had been the editor of the Cornell Law Review over forty years before Brooksley Born was editor of the Stanford Law Review. She passed this information on to Dean Stewart Schwab of the Cornell Law School, who wrote a letter about this to the Stanford Law Review.
Some months later, I asked Cynthia what response the Dean had received and she told me (to my astonishment that he had not received any response). I then wrote to the Stanford Law Review and also got no response. But I did not forget the matter.
About a year later, I was at a Cornell Club of Sarasota-Manatee and told this story. At my table, Linda Klineman, a Cornell alumna, told me that her roommate at Cornell was now at Stanford and perhaps she could help. I contacted the roommate, who directed me to a woman she knew at the law school. That woman spoke to someone at the Stanford Law Review, who told her that the Stanford Law Reviewhad published a correction of its article but had been too busy to respond to the letters from Dean Schwab and me as they were in the midst of moving their offices.
All of that led to Professor Bowman's writing "Trailblazers: First-Ever Women Editors in Chief of a Law Review."
Since about 1965, Sonia has been in touch with her British friend, Dr. Margherita Rendel, a former lecturer at the University of London and a barrister.
In 1972, Margherita invited Sonia to come to the U.K. to present testimony before a Select Committee of the House of Lords on the American experience with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Two weeks before her scheduled departure, at a time when three-quarters of her testimony had been completed, Sonia was stricken with back trouble and hospitalized. Her feminist friend, Catherine East, came to her bedside at the hospital, and the two of them completed Sonia's testimony, which Catherine delivered to the Select Committee.
After that, all that Sonia knew was that the legislation under consideration subsequently was enacted in England.
On Christmas morning of 2014, Margherita sent Sonia the following additional information.
"We have been wholly taken up with remembrances of the First World War. I'm glad you have been celebrating something much more cheerful - The Civil Rights Act of 1964 - which gives me the opportunity to say again how much you helped me in 1971-72 when I was preparing my evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Anti-Discrimination Bill. You were going to come to give invited oral evidence, but were in hospital with your back and Catherine East came in your place. The evidence we gave, based on U.S. experience, made a really important difference in this country and in particular changed the Conservative members of the Select Committee to realising that sex discrimination could work and they so reported and that meant that the Conservative Govt no longer opposed the idea. The Labour Govt elected at the Election which soon followed implemented the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 which was the model for the Race Relations Act 1976. "We have subsequently had a Disabilities Discrimination Act and various other measures and various European Union equality Directives and European Court decisions. The various bits of legislation etc. have now been tidied up into the Equalities Act 2010 which is a great fat A4 volume of 218 Sections and 28 Schedules. . . . "
Sonia is included in Jennifer Lee's documentary film, Feminist: Stories From Women's Liberation, which was released in 2013. If you scroll down on the website, you will see two rows of pictures of women. Sonia is in the second row center flanked by Gloria Steinem and Heather Booth.
The book, Jews of Sarasota-Manatee, by Kim Sheintal (Arcadia Publishing, Feb. 2013), contains a 2002 photo of Sonia in front of a sign about the Jewish Genealogical Society (JGS) of Southwest Florida (p 25). To see Sonia’s photo, go to arcadiapublishing.com. You will see a photo of the book cover. Under that are the words "Search Inside," click on that, then type in “Sonia Pressman Fuentes.”
Sonia gave a talk to JGS on March 2002.
From July 2008 to mid-April 2011, Sonia served as a Commissioner of the Sarasota Commission on the Status of Women.
Summer 2008: Congratulatory letters to Sonia on her 80th birthday from the presidents of Cornell University and the University of Miami (FL).
Sonia was honored October 30, 2007, by the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA) at a program at the headquarters of the National Woman's Party, the Sewall-Belmont House, in Washington, D.C., as one of one hundred forty pioneer feminists who lived or worked in the Washington, D.C., area from 1963-1975 and made significant contributions to women's rights. She was honored by VFA again at a June 9, 2008, program at the Harvard Club in NYC as one of thirty-six feminist lawyers, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who made significant contributions to women’s rights in the 1963-1975 time period.
An excerpt from Eat First, called "Coming to America," is included in the anthology Matzoh Ball Soup, A Collection of Personal Stories, Poems, and Rabbinical Sermons That Inspires the Jewish Spirit, by Oliver Kramer and Joshua Kramer, published in November 2002.
Sonia is also included in Women of Achievement in Maryland History, a reference book published in October 2002 and distributed to public and private schools, libraries, religious institutions, and private service organizations in Maryland.
Fuentes was one of nine authors who have published e-books who were profiled in the May 2001 issue of Publishing Success, a publication of the Writer's Digest. Click HERE to read the interview online.
Eat First was required reading in the spring 2000 semester in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University in a course on writing about minorities (including women) in America. Ms. Fuentes gave talks to two classes at Cornell in April 2000. In the spring 2001 semester, Eat First was required reading at American University in Washington, D.C., in a course on Writers in Print and in Person.
Letter from then-Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi to Sonia
Sonia worked for then-Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi for several months in 1988 while employed by the U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) under the LEGIS Fellows Program.
Congresswoman Pelosi asked Sonia to write a speech on housing for her. Later, Sonia suggested she write it on women's rights instead, and the Congresswoman graciously agreed. Nancy was to deliver this speech to a women's group she had created in San Francisco to whom she gave talks about once a month. When she saw how involved Sonia was in the subject, she suggested Sonia deliver it herself and she flew Sonia to San Francisco, where Sonia delivered the talk.
The first screen of the online exhibit of the Jewish Women’s Archive entitled “The Feminist Revolution,” shows a picture contributed by Sonia taken at the organizing meeting of NOW in the basement of the Washington Post building on Halloween weekend in October 1966. Sonia is seated one seat away from Betty Friedan, who is seated at the end of the front row on the right.
This exhibit includes seventy-four Jewish women who contributed to women’s rights in the U.S. Sonia’s write-up is here.
"Sonia Fuentes writes about an unexpected range of subjects, yet somehow they remain always linked to her roots in the Yiddish world of Eastern European Jews. Once that is understood, the traditional interconnections between her several worlds make perfect sense as one woman's reflection on the ways in which family, society, culture, and political engagement have always lived in creative tension--whether in the world of Fuentes' forebears or in the exciting one of our own." -- Tom Freudenheim, then-Deputy Director, Jewish Museum, Berlin, Germany
"I love your book. It arrived yesterday, and as I began to check it out, I couldn't stop reading it. The business of Jewish geography really got to me. As a rather unreconstructed, chauvinist Jewish girl from Milwaukee, I have played the 'Do you know' game all my life. Often with great success and pleasure. Thank you for sending the copy to us. I am so pleased to have it for our collection." -- Barbara Haber, Curator of Books, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America (at Radcliffe College)
A Bit of Feminist History
1974 refusal to admit woman lawyer to the Midtown Club in Stamford, CT
I moved to Stamford, CT, to begin work at the GTE Service Corp. on June 18, 1973. Thereafter, I met Mildred "Billie" Spelke Weil, a partner in a Stamford law firm who had practiced law in Stamford for thirty-four years. Shortly after moving to Stamford, I joined a women's luncheon club called the Midday Club. Billie Weil told me that there was another luncheon club in Sarasota called the Midday Club, where many business and other connections were furthered, but she could not join because she was a woman.
I urged her to pursue an application for membership. She asked a friend, Samuel S. Cross, who was an attorney and a member of the Midtown Club to sponsor her membership. It was denied.
I urged Billie to continue pursuing her claim. In 1976, she prevailed in In Cross v. Midtown Club, Inc., 33 Conn. Supp. 150 (Conn. Super. Ct. 1976). The court held that the actions and policies of an association in excluding women as members and guests solely on the basis of sex is ultra vires and beyond the power of the corporation and its management. Sam Cross used a novel theory in winning this case. He read the Midtown Club’s charter and then argued, using a principle of corporate law, ultra virus, that the Midtown Club’s denial of membership to Billie was ultra virus (outside the powers) of the organization because its charter did not spell forth the club’s power to exclude women.
Click on the images to view the article.