Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Sonia Pressman Fuentes
MSA SC 3520-13613
Founding Member, National Organization for Women

Biography:

When realizing that organizations such as the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) neglected to acknowledge and protect women’s rights in the 1960’s, Sonia Pressman Fuentes exclaimed that “the country and EEOC were in for a shock.”1 She was an diligent fighter for increasing women’s rights and her “work on behalf of women made equal rights not just a slogan but a reality.”2 She positively changed the future of women, as we can now enjoy liberties that were once merely a dream.   

Ms. Fuentes was born on May 30, 1928, in Berlin, Germany, to Hinda and Zysia Pressman.3 Her only brother, Hermann Pressman, was fourteen years old at her birth.4 Her parents were born in Piltz, Poland (about an hour outside of Cracow, Poland) but moved to Germany, where her father owned a clothing store and factory, in 1919.5 Ms. Fuentes’ childhood was enjoyable as she lived in an apartment with full-time maids and had a jovial relationship with her parents.6 She jokingly remembers that her “youth was shadowed by the fear that [she] would inherit [her father’s very distinguished] nose, but Mother always assured [her]: ‘"Don't worry, if you get Daddy's nose, you'll have an operation."’7

Being a Jewish family, the Pressman’s lives changed drastically when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.8 Ms. Fuentes recalls that was the day “our world ended.”9 After an incident at their father's clothing store, Hermann Pressman urged him to move the family away from Germany.10 Mr. Pressman, who had lived a luxurious life in Germany for over twenty years, was reluctant to leave.11 Consequentially, Hermann Pressman left alone on May 9, 1933, destined for Antwerp, Belgium.12

As the situation worsened, however, Mr. Pressman decided to move the rest of his family. He negotiated with a group of Nazi soldiers to sell his store, factory, and apartment in return for the right to leave Germany.13 The deal was agreed upon, but Mr. Pressman only received a fraction of the worth of the three buildings.14 The family was reunited in Belgium, where they rented an apartment and made several attempts to start a business while becoming legal citizens of the country.15 When none of these efforts were successful, the family immigrated, on April 20, 1934, aboard the Belgian Red Star Line S.S. Westerland, to New York City in hopes of finding more opportunities in the United States.16 This was significant as neither of Ms. Fuentes’ parents had a formal education and her brother was the only one who could speak English.17

Adapting as best she could, Ms. Fuentes learned English by listening to children play in the apartment garden and through her brother.18 In 1936 the family moved to the more rural Catskill Mountains of New York State after her father faced another unsuccessful attempt to start a clothing business.19 Ms. Fuentes’ parents ran a summer resort business in the Catskills, which eventually caused them to move to Monticello, New York.20 Learning English with more ease than her parents, Ms. Fuentes helped to run the family business from its foundation, often dealing with matters such as drafting rental contracts.21

Ms. Fuentes’ childhood greatly impacted her ideals and the way with which she carried out the rest of her life. Growing up as an immigrant in the United States, she always felt different. Little things, such as wearing European-style knee-high panty hose versus American-style ankle socks, created a distinct feeling of distance and aversion to societal norms, such as marrying at a young age.22 Additionally, a close relationship with her father laid the foundations for her women’s rights initiatives because she related more to the working, decision making lifestyle of her father than the lifestyle of her mother which revolved around “housekeeping and cooking.”23 This caused a desire to fight for women’s equality in the work force.24 Further, working for her parents business influenced her decision to become a lawyer.25 Finally, narrowly missing the Holocaust made her feel that she “was not free as other girls and women who were to simply seek happiness through marriage and family. [She] felt [she] had been saved for a purpose and that there was something [she] needed to do with [her] life to contribute to society.”26

After attending Cornell University in 1950 and graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Arts,27 Ms. Fuentes pursued her interest in law and enrolled at the University of Miami School of Law in 1954.28  In 1957 she graduated first in her class,29 and quickly passed bar exams in Florida and Washington, D.C.30 Remarkably, she graduated at a time when only 3% of the law school graduates in the United States were women.31  

After graduation, Ms. Fuentes worked as a law clerk and attorney for the United States Department of Justice, and then for the Office of Alien Property in an Attorney General’s program for honor law graduates.32  Following this, she worked for the National Labor Relations Board, while becoming actively involved in fighting for women’s rights through volunteer work with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).33 One of Ms. Fuentes’ first accomplishments as a volunteer was to prepare testimony in support of a bill requiring equal pay for men and women who performed equal work.34 She testified on the matter before the Congressional House Committee on Education and Labor in 1963, and this directly led to the Equal Pay Act being passed and signed into law.35  

In 1965, Ms. Fuentes started working for the EEOC in Washington, D.C., which had been recently created to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and “prohibited employment discrimination, including that based on sex, among covered employers, labor unions, and employment agencies.”36 This position made her the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Council and she made many noteworthy contributions such as drafting initial guidelines.37 However, Ms. Fuentes quickly learned that the EEOC paid little attention to the area of sex discrimination, moving “very slowly or not at all.”38 She found this disturbing as sex discrimination was a significant issue; thirty-seven percent of the complaints to the EEOC in the first fiscal year were related to it.39

Becoming “increasingly frustrated by the unwillingness of most of the [EEOC] officials to come to grips with the issues and to expand employment opportunities for women,” Ms. Fuentes became the lone staff member who fought against sex discrimination.40 She carried out such actions as finding feminist lawyers and passing women’s rights cases, which were developing at the EEOC, to them.41 This sparked a series of “precedent setting sex discrimination lawsuits.”42 Fatefully, that same year Betty Friedan, most commonly recognized for writing The Feminine Mystique, visited the EEOC to conduct interviews for a second book.43 Inviting Ms. Friedan to her office, Ms. Fuentes explained the dire need to create an organization to fight for women’s rights as the EEOC was not passionate enough about the topic.44

Agreeing with her reasoning, Ms. Friedan worked with Ms. Fuentes to create awareness about the need for a central women’s organization. The result was that forty-nine men and women agreed to plan for the creation of the National Organization for Women (NOW) at the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women in Washington, D.C., in 1966.45 Both women were founding members of the newly created organization.46 NOW instantly began to carry out tasks, such as drafting letters with demands, which would force the EEOC to enforce equal rights for women.47 NOW saw success when the EEOC stopped ignoring sex discrimination and instead pledged to commit to eliminating it in employment.48 Receiving much attention for their efforts, NOW caused the American public to treat equal rights for women was a national priority.49 Ms. Fuentes and the other members of NOW would in later years be credited as “the people responsible for creating the revolution.”50 The formation of NOW, which was largely due to the efforts of Ms. Fuentes, was a significant step towards expanding equal rights for women.

In 1968, Ms. Fuentes co-founded the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL) and Federally Employed Women (FEW).51 A few years later, in 1970, she married Roberto Fuentes, a Chief of the Biostatistics Division with the District of Columbia Department of Human Resources.52 Together they had one daughter, Zia Fuentes, born in 1972.53

Deciding to shift careers, Ms. Fuentes left her position at the EEOC in 1973 to work as a senior attorney at the headquarters of General Telephone Electronics Corporation (GTE) in Stanford, Connecticut.54 She left GTE in 1981 to work in the same position for TRW Inc, based in Euclid, Ohio.55 In these two positions, Ms. Fuentes was the highest paid woman at their headquarters.56 Ms. Fuentes never ceased to fight for women’s rights during her career change. Between 1974 and 1978 she travelled to countries such as Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, France, and Germany in order to give talks on women’s rights.57 Additionally, she co-founded Women in Management (WIM) and served on the board of directors of Women’s Place in New Canaan, based in Connecticut.58

Ms. Fuentes was always a driven, career-oriented woman and in some respects her home life suffered because of it. Her marriage began to falter and came to a head when Mr. Fuentes wanted to move but she was unwilling to leave her job at TRW, Inc, stating that she “had an important corporate job and [she] wasn't going to leave that.”59 Ms. Fuentes additionally recalled that she “felt saddled with running the household.”60 The two divorced in March, 1980, and Zia Fuentes stayed with her mother while Mr. Fuentes moved to Puerto Rico.61

Once again switching paths, in 1984 Ms. Fuentes left TRW, Inc, and took a position in the Legislative Council Division Office of the General Council at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, (HUD) in Washington, D.C.  For this she was selected to participate in a fellows program which gave federal employees Congressional experience, and she worked with Senator Howard Metzenbaum as well as Representative Nancy Pelosi.62 Because of the position, Ms. Fuentes and her daughter moved to Maryland.

During the next couple of years Ms. Fuentes became a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Woman’s Party, was diagnosed with and successfully treated for breast cancer, became a charter member of the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA), and was a representative for the American Cancer Society at the First National Conference on Women’s Health in China.63 She retired in 1993 in order to become a writer and public speaker.64 However, she continued to stay active in women’s affairs and participated in the activities of several organizations while serving as the Commissioner of the Sarasota Commission on the Status of Women from 2008 to 2011.65 Today, she is part of the advisory committee of the VFA.66  

Ms. Fuentes has received many honors in her life. One of the most prominent was the publication of her memoirs, titled Eat First -- You Don't Know What They'll Give You: The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter, in 1999. This publication has been used as a textbook by professors at Cornell University.67 Additionally, she was awarded the Veteran Feminists of America Medal of Honor by Betty Friedan and the Women at Work Award from the Wider Opportunities for Women in Washington, D.C. (WOW).68 She has been featured in the United High Commissioner for Refugees Gallery of Prominent Refugees as well as the Jewish Women’s Archive online exhibit titled Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution.69  Ms. Fuentes was made the first honorary member of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers,70 was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, and has been included in the publications What Happened to the Children Who Fled Nazi Persecution (2006), Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975, (2006) and Women of Achievement in Maryland History (2002).71

Ms. Fuentes reflected that she “chose to have a career when most women opted for marriage and a family. [She] got married at the age of 42, twenty years after most of [her] contemporaries had gotten married. [She] married a man from Puerto Rico. [She] gave birth to [her] daughter when [she] was 43 --when most of [her] friends' children were in college. And even when [she] retired, [she] chose a different route--instead of relaxing, [she] embarked upon a career as a writer and public speaker."72

Indeed, she has lived a unique life based upon the distinctive influences of her childhood and on her fierce commitment to rectify what she felt was unjust. Ms. Fuentes was a significant influence on the movement that forever changed the lives of women by giving them greatly expanded equal rights: “many women’s rights now taken for granted directly resulted from Fuentes’s steadfast work- the passing of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, the elimination of sex-segregated advertising columns, the beginning of women’s training programs in federal government, and the acceptance of a woman’s right to secure damages for sexual harassment.”73 Ms. Fuentes devoted nearly every essence of her life to ensure that women today can stand on equal ground with men. For that, immense gratitude and respect are due.



Quotes

 “As a Jew who had escaped from Germany, I naturally had an interest in the rights of minorities.”
-Sonia Pressman Fuentes74

“Sonia Pressman Fuentes played a major role in the birth of the new women's movement and her tales of its early days will delight historians and those who are curious about the beginnings of this great social movement.”75

"As I really realized how bad off women were by the mid-70's, I was appalled…The champion of women at that time...was Sonia Pressman.”76

“It is a wrench to be torn from the country of your birth and the feeling of dislocation never leaves you.”
-Sonia Pressman Fuentes77  

Endnotes

1. Carolyn B. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History, (Maryland: Women of Achievement in Maryland History, Inc, 2002), pg. 49  return to text 

2. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History  return to text 

3. Sonia Pressman Fuentes, “The Hermann Pressman Diary: Introduction,” Museum of Family History, last modified 2012, http://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/ce/pd-02.htm  return to text 

4. Sonia Pressman Fuentes, “Family Past Unfolds like Detective Story: Research Leads to Ship’s Records, a Movie and Snapshots,” The Museum of Family History Education and Research Center, last modified 1995, http://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/erc-rs-familypast.htm  return to text 

5. Fuentes, “The Hermann Pressman Diary: Introduction”  return to text 

6. Ibid.  return to text 

7. Sonia Pressman Fuentes, “Eat First—You Don’t Know What They’ll Give You: The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter,” The Museum of Family History, last modified 1999, http://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/lia-mem-catskills-spfuentes.htm  return to text 

8. Fuentes, “The Hermann Pressman Diary: Introduction”   return to text 

9. Ibid.   return to text 

10. Ibid.   return to text 

11. Ibid.   return to text 

12. Ibid.   return to text 

13. Ibid.   return to text 

14. Ibid.   return to text 

15. Ibid.   return to text 

16. Fuentes, “Family Past Unfolds like Detective Story”   return to text 

17. Ibid.   return to text 

18. Ibid.   return to text 

19. Ibid.   return to text 

20. Ibid.   return to text 

21. Ibid.   return to text 

22. Ibid.   return to text 

23. Fuentes, “Eat First—You Don’t Know What They’ll Give You: The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter”   return to text 

24. Ibid.   return to text 

25. Fuentes, “The Hermann Pressman Diary: Introduction”   return to text 

26. Fuentes, “Family Past Unfolds like Detective Story”   return to text 

27. “Fuentes, Sonia Pressman. Papers of Sonia Pressman Fuentes, ca. 1929-2009 (inclusive), 1955-2009 (bulk): A Finding Aid,” Harvard Library: Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women, last modified 2009, http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/deepLink?_collection=oasis&uniqueId=sch01256   return to text 

28. “Sonia Pressman Fuentes,” Philosophy Research Base:Erraticimpact.com, last modified 2012, http://www.erraticimpact.com/~feminism/html/sonia_pressman_fuentes.htm   return to text 

29. Ibid.  return to text 

30. “Fuentes, Sonia Pressman. Papers of Sonia Pressman Fuentes”   return to text 

31. “Sonia Pressman Fuentes”   return to text 

32. “Fuentes, Sonia Pressman. Papers of Sonia Pressman Fuentes”   return to text 

33. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History, pg. 49   return to text 

34. Ibid, pg 49   return to text 

35. Ibid, pg 49   return to text 

36. Sonia Pressman Fuentes, “Sonia Pressman Fuentes: Statement,” Jewish Women’s Archive: Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution, last modified 2005, http://jwa.org/feminism/_html/JWA026.htm   return to text 

37. Ibid.  return to text 

38. Ibid.   return to text 

39. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History, pg. 49   return to text 

40. Fuentes, “Sonia Pressman Fuentes: Statement,”   return to text 

41. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History, pg. 49   return to text 

42. Ibid, pg. 49  return to text 

43. Fuentes, “Sonia Pressman Fuentes: Statement”   return to text 

44. Ibid.   return to text 

45. “Sonia Pressman Fuentes”   return to text 

46. Fuentes, “Sonia Pressman Fuentes: Statement”   return to text 

47. “Fuentes, Sonia Pressman. Papers of Sonia Pressman Fuentes”   return to text 

48. Fuentes, “Sonia Pressman Fuentes: Statement”   return to text 

49. Ibid.   return to text 

50. Iveing Molotsky and Warren Weaver Jr, “Briefing; NOW, an Anniversary,” The New York Times, 25 October 1986   return to text 

51. “Fuentes, Sonia Pressman. Papers of Sonia Pressman Fuentes”   return to text 

52. “Page-Michalak: Berryman—Castor,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, 27 August 1970   return to text 

53. “Fuentes, Sonia Pressman. Papers of Sonia Pressman Fuentes”   return to text 

54. Ibid.   return to text 

55. Ibid.  return to text 

56. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History, pg. 49   return to text 

57. “Fuentes, Sonia Pressman. Papers of Sonia Pressman Fuentes”   return to text 

58. Ibid.   return to text 

59. Pollack, “Doubling back: Dual-Career Couples”   return to text 

60. Ibid.  return to text 

61.Ellen Joan Pollack, “Doubling back: Dual-Career Couples, Those 70’s Pioneers, Two Decades Later—As a Sign of the Times, They Made News on This Page; The Way They Live Now—Pleas of :Mommy Come Back,” The Wall Street Journal, 15 July 1998   return to text 

62. “Fuentes, Sonia Pressman. Papers of Sonia Pressman Fuentes”   return to text 

63. Ibid.   return to text 

64. Ibid.   return to text 

65. “Sonia Pressman Fuentes”   return to text 

66. Ibid.   return to text 

67. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History, pg. 49   return to text 

68. “Fuentes, Sonia Pressman. Papers of Sonia Pressman Fuentes”   return to text 

69. “Sonia Pressman Fuentes”    return to text 

70. Ibid.   return to text 

71. Ibid.   return to text 

72. Sonia Pressman Fuentes, “How Being an Immigrant Shaped my Life,” The Museum of Family History, last modified 2007, http://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/erc-lecture-spfuentes-immigrant.htm   return to text 

73. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History   return to text 

74. Ibid, pg. 49  return to text 

75. “Sonia Pressman Fuentes”   return to text 

76. Ibid.   return to text 

77. Fuentes, “How Being an Immigrant Shaped my Life”   return to text 

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