The entire Women You Should Know team offers our sincere thanks and gratitude to Sonia Pressman Fuentes for sharing her wisdom and powerful voice with us. What an incredible honor to have her, a feminist who changed America and the course of history, as a guest contributor during Women’s History Month.
By Sonia Pressman Fuentes – In 1964, the federal Equal Pay Act became effective, mandating equal pay for equal or substantially equal work without regard to gender. It was to be administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, headquartered in Washington, D.C. In 1965, another federal law, much broader than the Equal Pay Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Law of 1964, became effective. It mandated equality in all terms and conditions of employment by covered employers, employment agencies, and labor unions. It was to be administered by a new agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), also headquartered in Washington, D.C. I was the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the EEOC.
The first wave began in 1848 with women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott.
I was also one of forty-nine men and women who met in Washington, D.C. in June and October 1966 and formed the National Organization for Women (NOW), whose purpose was to bring women into the mainstream of American life. The actions of NOW began the second wave of the women’s movement. The first wave began in 1848 with the first U.S. convention for women’s rights, held in Seneca Falls, NY, and the Declaration of Sentiments adopted by the attendees. It involved women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. That wave ended in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting American women the right to vote.
These two laws and the efforts of NOW, along with subsequent developments, caused nothing less than a legal revolution in the rights of American women. That revolution continues and has spread throughout the world. The late Eli Ginzberg, former chairman of the National Commission for Manpower Policy, said that the increase in the number and proportion of women who work was the single most outstanding phenomenon of the twentieth century.
Prior to the mid-1960s, men and women in the U.S. lived in two different worlds. By and large a woman’s place was in the home. Her role was to marry and raise a family. If she worked, she was restricted to jobs considered appropriate for women, such as secretary, school teacher, bookkeeper, and nurse.
Men, on the other hand, were the decision-makers and activists. They were the heads of their households and held jobs such as engineer, school principal, corporate executive, senator, and president of the United States.
Employers advertised for personnel in sex-segregated classified advertising columns and also indicated their preferences for male or female applicants in the content of their ads. Where women did hold the same types of jobs as men, they were paid less.
All that has changed and continues to change. With few exceptions, today all jobs must be open to men and women alike, and women are entitled to equal pay for equal work or substantially equal work. An employer cannot refuse to hire a woman because she is pregnant or fire a pregnant employee if she can perform the duties of her job. Women are entitled to equality in all terms and conditions of employment, including hiring, promotions, pay, and other benefits, such as pension and retirement benefits (even though women as a class live longer than men). Our military academies, like West Point and Annapolis, now admit women, something that was unthinkable before the second wave of the women’s movement.
While the changes in American women’s status in the past fifty years have been nothing short of phenomenal, women remain far from equal in these United States.
While the changes in American women’s status in the past fifty years have been nothing short of phenomenal, women remain far from equal in these United States. Current and future generations of feminists have their work cut out for them both in the U.S. and abroad. In the U.S., just to name some outstanding problems, there are homelessness and poverty; illiteracy; unequal pay; violence against women, including sexual assaults and domestic violence; inadequate maternal and infant health care; HIV-AIDs; limitations on the access to abortions; human trafficking; the treatment of women with disabilities; the treatment of women in prison; and the representation of women in political life, the justice system, the entertainment industry, and in leadership positions in companies.
Worldwide, women face these same problems, along with female genital mutilation, access to contraception, so-called `honor’ killings, female infanticide, forced marriages, and child marriages.
In thinking about the progress we’ve achieved and the problems that still remain, I can’t say it any better than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he discussed race relations in a 1959 speech.
“We have come a long, long way. We have a long, long way to go.”
And then he quoted the words of an old African American slave preacher:
Lord, we ain’t what we want to be
We ain’t what we ought to be
We ain’t what we gonna be
But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.
Sonia Pressman Fuentes is a feminist who changed America and the course of history. One of the pioneers and leaders of the second wave of the women’s movement, she is currently a feminist activist, writer, and public speaker. Her two passions are women’s rights and her Jewish identity.
Ms. Fuentes was born in Berlin, Germany, and came to the U.S. with her family, after nine months in Antwerp, Belgium, on May 1, 1934, to escape the Holocaust. She grew up in the Catskill Mountains of NY State and graduated as valedictorian from Monticello (NY) High School. She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Cornell University and a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Miami (Florida) School of Law.
Sonia in toy car in Germany, circa 1930
She has been involved in women’s rights since 1963, when she testified on behalf of the ACLU in Congress in favor of the passage of the Equal Pay bill. In 1965, she joined the General Counsel’s office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as its first woman attorney. She drafted one of the EEOC’s earliest Digests of Legal Interpretations, its first Guidelines on Pregnancy and Childbirth, and the EEOC’s decision finding that airlines violated the law when they terminated or grounded stewardesses on marriage or reaching the age of thirty-two or thirty-five.
She is a cofounder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL), and Federally Employed Women (FEW) on the national level and Women in Management (WIM) in Fairfield County, CT. She is a charter member of the Veteran Feminists of America and was one of the longest-serving members of the Board of Trustees of the National Woman’s Party.
In November 1996, at a ceremony honoring the founders of NOW, Betty Friedan presented her with the Veteran Feminists of America Medal of Honor. On October 10, 1999, she was one of four recipients of the 1999 Women at Work Award of Wider Opportunities for Women given in recognition of her commitment to women’s issues and leadership in the fields of law and business. Prior recipients include Jane Fonda, Katie Couric, Linda Ellerbee, and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
On March 21, 2000, Ms. Fuentes was one of five Maryland women inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame for the year 2000. Subsequently, she was honored by the Veteran Feminists of America as being one of thirty-six feminist lawyers in the U.S. who made significant contributions to women’s rights in the 1963-75 time period; and she was selected by the Jewish Women’s Archive as one of seventy-four Jewish-American women in the U.S. who contributed significantly to women’s rights in the same time frame.
Sonia being honored at NOW’s National Conference in Tampa, Fl June 2011. Photo credit: Ruth Berman
She was included in the National Gallery of Prominent Refugees established by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to commemorate its 50th anniversary in 2000. She is also included in Women of Achievement in Maryland History and Feminists Who Changed America 1963-1975.
Ms. Fuentes has lectured extensively in this country and abroad on women’s rights and has written numerous articles on that subject in law reviews and other publications both in the US and abroad. She has traveled as an “American specialist” on women’s rights for the then-U.S. Information Agency to France, Germany, Spain, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia.
She served as an attorney with the federal government (Department of Justice, National Labor Relations Board, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development) for over twenty years and was an attorney and executive with the GTE Service Corporation and TRW Inc. for over ten years. She was the highest-paid woman at the headquarters of each of these corporations.
In March of 2014, Ms. Fuentes was in the midst of interviews for the Trailblazing Women in the Law Project of the American Bar Association. After their completion, her oral interview and a transcription of it will be housed in the Library of Congress and the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.
For more information on this Woman You Should Know, visit her site Erratic Impact.