Sonia Pressman Fuentes
On July 2, 1965, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) commenced operations; it had been created to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited employment discrimination, including that based on sex, among covered employers, labor unions, and employment agencies. Three months later, I joined the agency as the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel.
Initially, in the area of sex discrimination, the EEOC moved very slowly or not at all. I found myself increasingly frustrated by the unwillingness of most of the officials to come to grips with the issues and to expand employment opportunities for women. I became the staff person who stood for aggressive enforcement of the sex discrimination prohibitions of the Civil Rights Act and was ultimately awarded a Superior Performance award for my efforts. It was gratifying to me to receive this award, as it evidenced the Commission’s recognition of the importance of interpreting and enforcing the sex discrimination prohibitions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Then Betty Friedan, who had become famous through writing The Feminine Mystique, came to the EEOC to interview officials and staff for a second book. I invited her into my office and told her, with tears in my eyes, that the country needed an organization to fight for women the way the NAACP fought for African Americans.
Thereafter, in June 1966, at a luncheon at the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women in Washington, D.C., 28 people planned the formation of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Another 26 founders, of whom I was one, were added at an organizing conference in Washington, D.C. that October. In the picture taken at that organizing conference, I am in the front row at the right, one person away from Betty Friedan.
After its founding, NOW embarked upon an ambitious program of activities to get the EEOC to enforce Title VII for women. As a result of pressure by NOW and other subsequent developments, the EEOC began to take seriously its mandate to eliminate sex discrimination in employment and the American public became aware that there was a new national priority: equal rights for women.
A little-known law, a relatively small organization, the developments that followed in this country, and similar movements worldwide have completely changed the face of this country and are well on their way to changing the face of the world.
Copyright 2005 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes. This statement is excerpted from the chapter called “Sex Maniac” in Sonia Pressman Fuentes’ memoir, Eat First – You Don’t Know What They’ll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter.
Sonia Pressman Fuentes graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell University in 1950 and first in her class at the University of Miami School of Law in 1957. She had a 36-year career as an attorney and executive with the federal government and multinational corporations. She drafted several of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s initial landmark guidelines and decisions. In addition to being one of the founders of NOW, she was also a co-founder of the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL) and Federally Employed Women (FEW). In November 1996, Betty Friedan presented her with the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA) Medal of Honor in recognition of her efforts to improve the status of women. Currently, she serves on the Board of Trustees of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) and on the advisory committee of VFA. Since her retirement in 1993, she has pursued an active career as a writer and public speaker.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Sonia Pressman Fuentes." (Viewed on January 16, 2021) <https://jwa.org/feminism/fuentes-sonia-pressman>.