Sonia Pressman Fuentes does not dwell on what might have been. Not even on the fact that she almost wasn’t born.
The Potomac resident, co-founder of the National Organization for Women, and author of “Eat First—You Don’t Know What They’ll Give You: Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter,” was born in Berlin in 1928, the first year the little known National Socialist party held seats in the German parliament. But only because the doctor Fuentes’ mother went to seeking an abortion was on vacation in the Swiss Alps with a famous ballerina.
“In my life and in my family it is to me a wonderful, humorous story,” Fuentes said of her mother, the abortionist and the ballerina. “And the reason is because my parents were so devoted to me that this just becomes a humorous family story.”
Fuentes’ life is punctuated by serendipitous events and seemingly impulsive choices. But chance alone did not send Fuentes to law school in the 1950s or make her the first woman attorney in the general counsel’s office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “It’s both chance and your own determination,” said Fuentes. “Those two work together.”
FUENTES’ POLISH PARENTS had lived in Germany for over 20 years when she was born. Her father operated a clothing business and her mother and brother Hermann—fourteen years her senior—helped out in the store. During the early 1930s Hermann expressed growing concern about the growing power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, but Fuentes’ father thought the idea of leaving was absurd.
“It’s just as if I came to you now. Let’s say Bush, God forbid, is reelected and I come to you and I say ‘This man is no good you need to move to Australia,’” Fuentes said, recounting her father’s reluctance. “What would you say to me?”
But Hermann persisted and Fuentes’ father eventually gave in. The family fled to Antwerp in 1933 and to America a year later.
“We solely survived because of my brother and as long as he lived I rarely spoke to him without thanking him,” Fuentes said.
Fuentes was six when she arrived in America and does not remember watching the war unfold. “I don’t know what I felt when I was six,” she says, except for feeling “different from the other kids.” The quiet immigrant girl going to school in the Bronx began to learn her fourth language—English.
Fuentes’ life in America includes a laundry list of towns and cities: New York, Miami, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and, for most of the time since 1957, Washington. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell in 1950, where briefly considered majoring in Home Economics.
“I was going to take a course in meat-cutting,” she said. Fuentes spent her last undergraduate year in the graduate school of business and public administration, and with her degree in hand, she prepared to be recruited.
“I thought ‘What job will I take?’ The whole world is going to come knocking at my door looking for me,” Fuentes said. She didn’t get a single offer. Not even a call. “At one point I sent out 200 resumes,” she said. “Nobody was hiring women college graduates in those days.”
Fuentes essentially shelved her college degree and took a course in shorthand. “I finished on a Friday,” she said, “and Monday I had a job.” She moved around, working in the lower echelons of various companies, most of which Fuentes said later went out of business. At one point she worked for a man named Sonny Sunshine. But Fuentes knew she could do better.
When people asked her about her job, Fuentes says, “I’d say I was a secretary. And that was perfectly acceptable to them. That was a perfectly acceptable thing for women to do in those days. But I felt that it wasn’t enough—that with my college education I should be doing more.”
When a company that had repeatedly transferred Fuentes for arbitrary reasons tried to move her again, she made a spur of the moment decision. She quit and declared she was going to law school. “For me to say at that time I was going to law school was like saying I’m going to become a lion tamer. … And I don’t know what caused me to say that. I think I just wanted to let them know that I didn’t depend on their lousy job.”
“If she tells you she’s going to do it – it’s done,” said Jackie Williams, a friend of more than forty years. Fuentes went to the University of Miami Law School and passed the Florida Bar in 1957.
Her career took her first to the Office of Alien Property at the Department of Justice, thanks to a professor Fuentes barely knew scheduling an interview on her behalf, and after that office shut down, to the National Labor Relations Board.
Fuentes recalled her interview at the NLRB.
“He said ‘You studied labor law in college?’ I said no. He said, ‘You studied it in law school?’ I said no. He said, ‘You have an interest in it, you probably take some courses at GW or wherever in labor law?’ I said I never had an interest in labor law. He said, ‘Why are you here?’ I said I need a job. He said ‘You’re hired.’
“That’s how I got into the field of labor law where I spent my entire career.”
IT WAS AFTER FUENTES moved to the newly-formed Equal Employment Opportunities Commission several years later that she became involved the women’s movement. Fuentes found that her colleagues at EEOC were dedicated to enforcing the provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that fought racial discrimination, but paid little attention to the provisions dealing with sex discrimination. She was dubbed a “sex maniac” because she was constantly lobbying for the enforcement of the sex clauses as well.
In early 1966, Betty Freidan came to the EEOC, interviewing employees while working a follow up to “The Feminine Mystique.”
“She happened to come on a day when I’d had it up to here with their not doing anything for women,” said Fuentes. “So I took her into my office and I got tears in my eyes and I said to her “What this country needs is an organization to fight for women like the NAACP fights for African Americans.” The National Organization for Women was formally conceived in June of 1966 at a meeting of the Commissions on the Status of Women, and in October that year, 27 other women drafted a statement of purpose and skeletal bylaws for the organization in the basement of the Washington Post Building.
At the 20th reunion of the group in 1986, “We sat around for four hours and everybody said how they got into women’s rights,” Fuentes said, “and everybody there said they gave Betty the idea, who started the organization.” But Fuentes has a 1974 New York Times article written by Freidan that says it really was her.
"One day," the Mar. 4, 1974 article reads, "a cool young woman lawyer, who worked for the agency that was not enforcing the law against sex discrimination, carefully closed the door of her office and said to me with tears in her eyes, 'I never meant to be so concerned about women. I like men. But I'm getting an ulcer, the way women are being treated. We may never have a chance like this law again. Betty, you have to start an N.A.A.C.P. for women."
“It is a tremendous source of gratification to me to have lived to see this,” Fuentes says of her involvement in the women’s movement. “Lots of people are involved in movements and they don’t see what happens later on. So I feel gratified to have seen what has happened.” But, she says, “There are many, many, many things yet to be done. It goes on.”
FUENTES TOO goes on. She retired in 1993 and spent five years writing her book. Last month, she was invited to contribute to an online exhibition organized by the Jewish Women’s Archive, in connection with the 350th anniversary of Judaism in America. Other invitees include U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and authors Eve Ensler and Erica Jong.
“I am in the most exciting part of my life,” said Fuentes, who keeps busy writing articles, speaking to groups, and going out to restaurants and cultural events.
“She’s very active, she’s full of energy, full of dynamite. She’s going all the time,” said Joe Glazer, a longtime friend. “Sonia is always scheduled,” added Millie Glazer, Joe’s wife. “You call her and she says ‘Let’s see in six weeks I’m free for lunch.”
Fuentes lives alone. Her daughter Zia, 32, works for Corinthian Colleges in California. She was married to Roberto Fuentes, a Puerto Rican attorney from 1970-1979. She's lived in Potomac since 1987, but still spends winters in Florida.
All of Fuentes' friends say that even though some of the anecdotes are familiar, they bought and read Fuentes’ book. “I bought a book and had her autograph it,” said Williams. “One of these days it’s going to be very valuable.”