Debate Magazine

Star of Davida Interviews Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Posted on the 10 February 2012 by Starofdavida
Star of Davida Interviews Sonia Pressman FuentesAfter the restrictive 1950s, women began to fight for their rights. When Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964(prohibiting employers from sex discrimination) was enacted, the Equal Employment OpportunityCommission (EEOC) was established to enforce it. Unfortunately, the EEOC was not friendly to women's rights. Sonia Pressman Fuentes, a Jewish woman whose parents escaped Nazi Germany with her, was the only female lawyer at the EEOC. When Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique, began poking around the EEOC for information on women's advancement, Fuentes told her about the EEOC's inaction and urged her to create an "NAACP for women." Friedan heeded her advice in 1966, when she established the National Organization for Women (NOW). Fuentes cofounded the organization and was extremely active during its early years, working with NOW to influence EEOC rulings and the like. Star of Davida had the absolute honor of interviewing this amazing woman.
You say in your book Eat First - You Don't Know What They'll Give You: The Story of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter thatyou got very involved in writing the testimony on behalf of the 1963 Equal Pay Act.Do you know why this issue caught your attention, rather than anything else(racial discrimination, etc.) you had done in the EEOC?I wasn’t working at the EEOC whenI was asked by Larry Speiser, head of the ACLU’s Washington, DC,office, to write testimony in support of the Equal Pay bill.  I wasworking for the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) as an attorney at itsheadquarters in Washington, DC,and, shortly before Larry asked me to do this, I had volunteered to be ofassistance to the ACLU’s Washingtonoffice. I would guess Larry asked me to do this because I was a woman but Idon’t really know. I never asked him.
Do you know why Charlie Duncanhired you to the EEOC’s general counsel’s office even though you were female?Was your gender a factor at all?What do you mean “even though” Iwas a woman? I think he may have hired me because I was a womanbecause Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which the EEOC administeredand administers, prohibits gender discrimination in employment. But I don’tknow why he hired me; I never asked him. Keep in mind that I had been referredto him by his former pupil at the Howard Law School,my friend, Jacqueline Williams.
When you say that “societyexacted a high price from deviants [women who didn’t adhere to the statusquo],” what was this high price?Society had certain roles itexpected men and women to play and when women or men didn’t conform to those roles,members of society put pressure on them to conform to society’s expectationsand, if they did not, it treated them as if they were eccentrics or freaks. Anexample of this is given in my memoir. When I decided to go to law schoolin 1954, about 3% of this country’s law school graduates were women. Law wasnot a profession society thought was suitable for women. Thus, when Imentioned to people that I planned to attend law school, the common responsewas to ask me why I would choose to do such a thing. I describe the incidentwhere my mother took me up to a stranger in a shopping mall and asked this manif he thought “this little girl” could be a lawyer.
Did you ever feel overwhelmedat the idea of trying to eradicate sex discrimination in a world that was sounfriendly to women’s rights?Yes, but that didn’t prevent mefrom continuing with the struggle.
You ask a rhetorical question,“Why was I engaged in this battle [for women’s rights] against men who hadpower when I had none?” Do you know the answer to this in hindsight?I’m someone who feels compelledto do something about it when I encounter injustice.
It’s extremely cool that you suchan integral part of the creation of NOW. At the time, did you have a clue howmuch influence you would have on history?No.
Were you ever afraid that yourjob would be jeopardized if your activity with NOW was discovered by the EEOC?I thought it was a possibilitythat my underground meetings in Mary Eastwood’s apartment might be discoveredby the EEOC and could jeopardize my job. But I was never “afraid” about that.
You wrote the lead decisionagainst the airline companies’ discriminatory policies towards stewardesses -how did you get so involved in this cause? What else did you do regarding thestewardesses? I became emotionally involved inthe stewardess cases because as a woman I felt for the stewardesses and wasdrawn to the justice of their cause. Airlines terminated or groundedstewardesses on marriage or on becoming thirty-two or thirty-five and it hadvarious qualifications for them, such as their height and weight. The lawyerrepresenting the airlines was named Jesse Freidin and he was a terrific lawyer.I felt very competitive with him. But, sadly, he died before I wrote the leaddecision.
I became friendly with a womannamed Colleen Boland, who represented the stewardess union, and was a cofounderof NOW with me. In 1986, when Catherine East, Mary Eastwood, and I planned a20th reunion for NOW founders in Washington, DC, I tried very hard to locateColleen but was unsuccessful. In 1996, the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA)planned a program at Barnard College in NYC to honorNOW founders. I tried again to locate Colleen before this conference, and thistime I was successful, but I was too late. I connected with Colleen’s daughterwho told me her mother had lived in Cleveland(where I had lived from the beginning of 1982 to the end of 1986) but had diedthree months earlier. I gave a talk about Colleen at that conference, which ison videotape.

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