Finding My Identity as a Feminist

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Written by TeamIdentity

Finding your true identity may take years. For Sonia, it took a series of events in her life to figure out what she was truly meant to do with hers. From fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933 to an American life of law school and ivy-league education, Sonia was able to find her role as a feminist in life.

By Sonia Pressman Fuentes

I was born in Berlin, Germany, of Polish Jewish parents in 1928. In 1933, my brother, Hermann, who was fourteen years my senior, saw the threat Hitler posed to Germany’s Jews and urged my parents to leave Germany. My father, who had lived in Germany for over twenty years and was the prosperous owner of a men’s clothing store, scoffed at this suggestion. He was sure that Hitler and his Nazi followers would soon blow over.

In July 1933, my parents and I moved to Antwerp. There followed months during which my father and brother tried to find a way to make a living in Antwerp and other European cities, but nothing worked out. My brother made countless applications for visas to permit our family to remain in Belgium; all were denied. Then, my father read that ships were departing for the U.S., and my parents decided we would get on one of these ships. Since my parents had been born in Poland, we were able to get visas for the U.S. on our Polish passports. We left Antwerp on the Red Star Line’s S.S. Westernland in April 1933, arriving in New York City on May 1, 1934.

On arriving in New York City, my family rented an apartment in the Bronx and my father went into the men’s clothing business. We soon moved to upstate New York, where my father began his own resort business.

I graduated from high school in Monticello as valedictorian of my class and went on to Cornell University, from which I graduated, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1950.

By 1954, I felt I was getting nowhere fast, and decided to apply for law school at the University of Miami, Fl. (since my family and I often spent winters in Miami Beach). My goal was to practice law in a private law firm, something I never thereafter did.

In my final year of law school, recruiters from the U.S. Department of Justice came to the school, and I was accepted for their program for Honor Law Graduates.

After graduation from law school, first in my class, I moved to Washington, D.C., intending to stay with the Justice Department for a few months before moving on to my goal: private practice. That was the start of a twenty-three-year career with a number of federal agencies. I subsequently worked for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD).

Through much of my career, I was looking for another job. From the age of ten, I had felt there was a purpose to my life, a mission I had to accomplish, and that I was not free as other girls and women were simply to marry, raise a family, and pursue happiness. This feeling arose from three factors in my life: I had been born only because my mother’s favored abortionist was out of Berlin, my immediate family and I had escaped the Holocaust, and I was bright. I concluded that I had been saved to make a contribution to the world. But I had no idea what it was to be.

In 1963, as a volunteer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), I testified before the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor in favor of the Equal Pay Bill, which was subsequently passed. I assumed that was my first and last effort on behalf of women’s rights–but I was wrong.

In October 1965, three months after it had commenced operations, I joined the EEOC as the first woman lawyer in its Office of the General Counsel–and found the role I was meant to play. The EEOC was charged with enforcement of a new law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At that time (it was later expanded to cover discrimination based on mental or physical disabilities), Title VII prohibited discrimination by covered employers, employment agencies, and labor unions based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

During its first year or so, by and large, the EEOC did not enforce the gender discrimination prohibitions of the Act. Most of the commissioners and staff had come to the agency to fight discrimination against African Americans and did not want the Commission’s time and resources devoted to gender discrimination. Furthermore, the gender discrimination provisions raised more difficult questions of interpretation than did the other prohibitions of the Act.

The Commission’s failure to implement the gender discrimination prohibitions of the Act caused me a great deal of grief and frustration. When Betty Friedan came to the Office of the General Counsel to interview the General Counsel and his deputy for a book she planned to write, I shared this frustration with her. I told her that what this country needed was an organization to fight for women like the NAACP fought for its constituency.

In June and October 1966, 49 men and women, of whom I was one, formed the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Thereafter, I became involved in an underground activity. I took to meeting privately at night in the Southwest Washington, D.C., apartment of Mary Eastwood, a Justice Department attorney and a co-founder of NOW. There we drafted letters from NOW to the Commission demanding that action be taken. To my amazement, no one at the Commission ever questioned how NOW had become privy to the Commission’s deliberations.

As a result of pressure by NOW, the EEOC began to take seriously its mandate to eliminate gender discrimination in employment. It conducted hearings and began to issue interpretations and decisions implementing women’s rights. I drafted one of the Commission’s earliest Digests of Legal Interpretations, its first Guidelines on Pregnancy and Childbirth, and the EEOC’s first decision finding that airlines violated Title VII when they grounded or terminated stewardesses on marriage or reaching the age of 32 or 35.

I left the Commission in 1973 and in the ensuing years became the highest-paid woman employee at the headquarters of two leading corporations: GTE Service Corporation in Stamford, Connecticut, and TRW Inc. in Cleveland, Ohio.

In 1990, I learned I had breast cancer. I had a mastectomy. Thereafter, I went on the board of the American Cancer Society (ACS) for the District of Columbia, traveled to Israel and China to look into the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer in those countries, and reported on my findings to the ACS and in speeches.

In 1996, at a ceremony honoring the founders of NOW, Betty Friedan presented me with the VFA Medal of Honor. I was honored by VFA again at a June 2008 program at the Harvard Club in NYC as one of thirty-six feminist lawyers who made significant contributions to women’s rights in the 1963-1975 time period.

I embarked on new careers as a writer, public speaker, and community and feminist activist. Currently, I am co-president of the Sarasota chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a member of the local chapter of NOW, a member of the program committee of the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, and the first and only honorary member of the Sarasota chapter of the Florida Association of Women Lawyers.

See how Sonia answers our Identity Five Questions:

1. What have you accepted within yourself and/or within your life? Is there anything you are working on accepting?

I have accepted that my life is basically lived alone. There is nothing I am working on accepting; my life is busy and full and I have my hands full living it.

 2. What do you appreciate about yourself or your life?

I appreciate the facts that I have a busy life filled with more friends than I have time to see and that I have work that I believe is worthwhile and that I enjoy. I appreciate the fact that I live in Sarasota, FL, a social and cultural mecca, where I can enjoy a hospitable climate (at least most of the year, the summers are too hot and humid) and dining out, movies, theater, concerts, museums, and lectures with friends.

What have you achieved, or what are you working to achieve personally, physically, or mentally?

I have been working on improving women’s rights since 1963 and I hope I have made a contribution. I am not working to achieve anything personally, physically or mentally, other than to be able to keep going.

What is your no-so-perfect way? We are all unique with quirks and imperfections, so why not flaunt them and embrace them!

I am sometimes brusque and too frank. I work on keeping those qualities in check.

How would you complete this sentence, “I Love My…” This has to be about you, physically or mentally.

I love my energy and sense of humor.

To find out more about Sonia, please visit her website

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