For decades Sonia Pressman Fuentes has dedicated herself to the cause of women's' rights. Her achievements and the well-deserved accolades for her work have been many.
In 1963 she testified in Congress on behalf of the ACLU In favor of passage of the Equal Pay Bill.
She became the first woman attorney in the General Counsel's office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Sonia is a co-founder of the National Organization For Women (NOW).
She is a co-founder of the Women's Equity Action League (WEAL) & Federally Employed Women (FEW).
In November 1996, she was awarded the Veteran Feminist of America Medal of Honor by Betty Friedan.
In 1999 she was a recipient of the Women at Work Award of Wider Opportunities for Women.
She is a charter member of the Veteran Feminist of America.
She is one of the longest-serving members of the Board of Trustees of the National Woman's Party.
In 2000 she was inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame and included in Women of Achievement in Maryland History.
Sonia has lectured extensively in this country and abroad as an "American specialist" on women's rights.
As the highest-paid women at both GTE Service Corporation and TRW, she served as an attorney and executive.
Her memoirs: "Eat First-You Don't Know What They'll Give You: The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter"
The following article, written by Steven A. Biggs, appeared in "Passages", the magazine of HIAS, The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Born in Berlin in 1928 to Polish parents, Sonia Pressman (who added Fuentes to her name when she married) fled with her family to the United States in 1933 to escape the escalating situation in Germany. After spending months in Antwerp, the family boarded the S.S. Westernland for the United States and arrived in this country on May 1, 1934. After HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) helped the family to get settled in the Bronx, her father returned to the business he'd been in in Berlin and opened a men's clothing store in Manhatten.
Unable to adjust to the pace of like in New York City, he relocated the family to the Catskill Mountains of New York. There the Pressmans entered the summer resort business, first renting and running a rooming house in Woodridge and then building and operating a bungalow colony on 50 acres in Monticello.
Because Sonia's English was superior to that of her parents, she handled all the family's legal work, including the drafting of rental contracts, which ignited her interest in the legal profession. While in high school, at the urging of a classmate, Sonia applied for and was awarded a scholarship and made plans to attend Cornell University. Her parents were deeply opposed to her going to college and felt that a college education would "turn off any prospective suitors." Despite these objections Sonia went and began her school career by majoring in languages, then switched to psychology and spent her senior year in the Graduate School of Business and Public Administration.
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, Sonia moved to Long Beach, N.Y., to join her parents, who by this time had sold the bungalow colony. Sonia expected to be inundated with job offers, but they never came. Instead, she had a series of short-lived jobs, and, after seven months, she went back to school, this time to study shorthand at a business college. She finished her shorthand course on a Friday and that Monday she landed a job as a secretary. She worked as a secretary for four years, felt she was not living up to her potential and decided to go to law school. In 1954, she entered the University of Miami School of Law in Coral Gables, FL.
After graduating first in her class, she went to work as a lawyer for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. In 1965 she got a job as the first women lawyer in the general counsel's office at the newly created Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (EEOC). The EEOC's mandate at that time was to enforce a law that prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. The agency's main goal was to fight discrimination against African Americans because the law the agency implemented grew out of the civil rights movement. In its first fiscal year, however, the agency found that the allegations of sex discrimination constituted 37 percent of the charges filed.
"At that time, few Americans were aware that there was such a thing as sex discrimination," recalls Fuentes. "In my early speeches for the EEOC, any references to 'women's rights' was greeted with laughter. Words like 'sex discrimination' and 'women's rights' hadn't yet become part of our national vocabulary." "At that time, men and women lived in two different worlds. A woman's place was in the home. Her role was to marry and raise a family. She was not to have career ambitions, although she could work for a few years before marriage as a typist, clerk, secretary, telephone operator, schoolteacher, a saleswoman, librarian, social worker or performer. When she had children, she was to raise her sons and daughters differently so that they too would conform to the socially acceptable gender roles."
The EEOC moved very slowly on issues of sex discrimination or not at all, and this became very frustrating to Sonia, who by this time had become one of the most aggressive people on the staff of the EEOC with regard to the issues of sex discrimination. She had an opportunity to vent that frustration when Betty Friedan, author of The Feminist Mystique, came to the EEOC to conduct interviews for an upcoming book. Behind closed doors, the two women spoke. "I told her this country needed an organization to fight for women like the NAACP fought for African Americans," recalls Fuentes.
In June 1966 at a luncheon during the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women in the United States, Betty Friedan and a small group planned an organization that subsequently became NOW (National Organization for Women). Its purpose, as written on a paper napkin by Friedan, was "to take the actions needed to bring women into the mainstream of American society, now, full equality for women, in fully equal partnership with men," By the end of the day, NOW had 28 members.
In October 1966, a second organizing meeting was held at which another 26 founders, one of whom was Sonia, adopted a statement of purpose and skeletal bylaws. NOW then embarked on an ambitious program of activities to get the EEOC to enforce the anti-discrimination law for women. As a result of pressure from NOW, the EEOC began to take seriously its mandate to eliminate sex discrimination. It conducted hearings and began to issue interpretations and decisions implementing women's rights. As a result of NOW's actions, the EEOC's rulings, court decisions and the developments that followed, the status of women in this country began to change - not only with respect for employment, but in every area of society.
Sonia retired as an attorney with the Federal government in 1993 and is now an accomplished public speaker and author.