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Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1928 of Polish Jewish parents, with whom she fled to the US to escape the Holocaust. After arriving in the US in 1934 and getting her education here, she played a significant role in increasing job opportunities and equal rights for women in the US.

Sonia graduated from Cornell University, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1950, but couldn’t get a job until she went to business school and learned shorthand. Then she got a job as a secretary. She soon became bored and went to law school at the University of Miami (FL) and graduated first in her class. She then got a job in Washington, D.C.  in the Justice Department, and later worked for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Sonia joined the EEOC in 1965 as the first women lawyer in its Office of General Counsel. The EEOC was in charge of enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and nationality by covered employers, employment agencies and labor unions. It was later amended to also prohibit discrimination based on age and mental or physical disability. During its first year, the EEOC did not enforce the gender discrimination prohibitions of the Act. Most of its efforts were on fighting discrimination against African Americans. This frustrated Sonia and led her to co-found the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. Sonia, Mary Eastwood and other government lawyers held regular meetings to discuss the inaction of the EEOC that Sonia had witnessed during the week with regard to women’s rights, and then drafted letters from NOW to the EEOC demanding that action be taken in these areas. As a result of the pressure by NOW, the EEOC began to take seriously its mandate to eliminate gender discrimination in employment.

In 1990, Sonia learned she had breast cancer. She had a mastectomy and a simultaneous silicone breast implant. In 2005 her implant ruptured, and she had it replaced with a saline breast implant. Subsequently, she wrote an article on breast implant ruptures and leaks to let the millions of women with implants know that implants have limited life spans.

In 1996, Betty Friedan presented Sonia with the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA) Medal of Honor. She was honored again by the VFA in 2008 as one of 36 feminist lawyers who made significant contributions to women’s rights in the 1963-1975 time period.

ICareVillage interviewed Sonia in her home in February 2010.