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Excerpts from Eat First -- You Don't Know What They'll Give You
- Jewish Geography -- this story was first published in October 1998 in Der Bay, the newsletter of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs. Here, both the English version and a version in transliterated Yiddish are available in pdf format.
- Return to Germany -- the story of Sonia’s return to Germany in 1978 to speak about the women’s rights revolution in the US for the then-US Information Agency (USIA), published on the website of The Jewish Writing Project on Jan. 19, 2009.
- If You Speak His Language --This piece was published in Tzum Punkt (Nov.-Dec. 1999, Vol. 1, No. 2) p. 5, the newsletter of Yiddish of Greater Washington.
- Thai Silk -- This piece was first published in the Common Law Lawyer and then on the websites of whispersmagazine.com, iagora.com, and BankgokAtoZ.com (September 2001).
and Beyond -- This excerpt appeared on May 25, 2001, in
the Story Lady e-newsletter and on its website,
the Jewish Frontier, the Jewish Internet magazine, the Jewish Magazine online, the e-zine, Home-Based Working Moms, and the Writer Online.
Terry Boothman, the editor of the Writer Online,
had this to say about it in the January 14, 2003, issue that
carried the story:
Everyone's life is interesting, right? Sure. So, everyone should write a memoir, right? Yeah, why not.. And everyone should publish a memoir, right? Good Lord, no. Because not everyone knows how to write a publishable memoir, which means a memoir that lots of other people will enjoy reading. Sonia Pressman Fuentes, one of the founders of the National Organization for Women, published just such a memoir--"Eat First--You Don't Know What They'll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter." Now, in How I Got My Mink Stole, excerpted from that memoir, you can get a glimpse of exactly how good memoirs are written.
- Weinberg's Glasses - the story of what happened when Sonia's father found a pair of eyeglasses.
- Sex Maniac -- the story of the Second Wave of the women's movement and Fuentes' role in it.
- Harry Golden and "the Coat" -- Sonia Fuentes sues Harry Golden, published in Jewish Currents, June 16, 1997.
- How I Got My Mink Stole -- a lengthy struggle with an unexpected denouement.
- Eating Out -- published in the April 11, 2001, issue of Writer's Bloc Online, the e-newsletter of the National Writers Union.
- Graduating With My Class -- Fuentes' desire to graduate with her high school class has a significant consequence. Published originally in the Catskill/Hudson Jewish Star 6.2 (June 1996) 17.1 and then on Harry Leichter's website.
- Mother and the Night School -- published in the December 2001, issue of Kolot, A World of Jewish Voices.
- Catskills Stories -- Some of Fuentes' stories about her experiences in the Catskill Mountains of New York State may be found at the Museum of Family History.
- Whole Living Journal, March-April, 2005
- feministplanet.com, 2003
- Bella Online, July, 2003
- Womensradio.com, May, 2003
- The Story Circle, July 2002, reprinted in Ms. Magazine online
- The Compulsive Reader, July 2002
- Rabbi Sam Silver, Congregation L'dor Va-dor, July 2002
- Midwest Book Review, April 2002
- Sarasota Herald-Tribune, March 17, 2002
- C. Penn "WordWeaving," amazon.com, March 15, 2002
- Michael Fein, editor of Gantseh Megillah, January 2002
- Chadashot, August, 2001
- Women's Books Online, First - Third Quarter, 2001
- Unions Today, July 2001
- Inscriptions, June 2001
- 5thmoon.com, May 2001
- totallyjewish.com, May 2, 2001
- Syracuse New Times, April 11-18, 2001
- Holt Uncensored, January 16, 2001
- Miami Magazine, Fall 2000
- Ofrah's Jewish Book Club, May 2000
- Der Bay, March 2000
- Shalom, February 2000
- Becky Barbour, June 3, 2000
- Bridge Works Publishing, January 2000
- US Times Bestseller List
- Straight from the Heart, 1999
Buy the Book
Eat First -- You Don't Know What They'll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter by Sonia Pressman Fuentes
Book Ordering Information
In the United States, EAT FIRST can be ordered in paperback and hardback from amazon.com, bn.com, and xlibris.com. The book can be ordered from amazon.co.uk in the UK and amazon.ca in Canada. EAT FIRST is also available for Kindle which includes free wireless delivery via Amazon Whispernet.
Sonia Pressman Fuentes
From Eat First -- You Don't Know What They'll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter by Sonia Pressman Fuentes
In 1965, when I entered the office of Charles T. Duncan, the first general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the EEOC), he pointed to the papers strewn across his desk. "You see these papers?" he asked. "Those are all résumés sent in for the one opening I have in the general counsel's office. I don't know why," he continued, looking at me, "but I'm going to hire you." That's how I entered the field of women's rights, which became the focus of my life.
I date the beginning of the modern revolution in women's rights--referred to as the Second Wave of the women's movement--to December 14, 1961. On that date, President Kennedy established the President's Commission on the Status of Women, with Eleanor Roosevelt as chair, to review, and make recommendations for improving, the status of women. In 1963, that Commission issued its report, American Women. On November 1 that year, three weeks before his assassination, President Kennedy signed an Executive Order establishing the Interdepartmental Committee on the Status of Women and the Citizens' Advisory Council on the Status of Women to facilitate carrying out the recommendations contained in American Women.
During the early sixties, while I was working as an attorney at the NLRB in Washington, DC, I was unaware of these developments. Early in 1963, however, I became involved in women's rights by chance. A colleague mentioned that he did volunteer work for the American Civil Liberties Union (the ACLU) and suggested that I might be interested as well. When I volunteered, Larry Speiser, the director of the ACLU's Washington office, gave me an immediate assignment--to prepare testimony for him to deliver before a committee of the House of Representatives in favor of a bill requiring equal pay for men and women for equal or substantially equal work.
When Larry saw how involved I became in the subject matter of his testimony, he suggested that I deliver it myself. On March 26, 1963, at the age of thirty-four, I testified before the House Committee on Education and Labor.
Later that year, the Equal Pay Act was signed into law, after which I assumed my involvement with women's rights was over. Since I wanted to explore the West Coast, I transferred to the NLRB's Los Angeles field office. I moved to Hollywood and for a while enjoyed the California life and the friends I made there. But after 1½ years, I was ready to return home. I didn't like the fast freeway driving, the distances between friends in LA's far-flung community, and the fact that California was the locus of one natural disaster after the other: sandstorms, forest fires, and earthquakes. I was simply not a Californian. Besides, my parents were unhappy with my living so far away and wanted me to come back east. So, at a time when hundreds of thousands of Americans were heading west, I returned to the East.
Early in 1965, I was back at the NLRB's Washington headquarters, working as a legal assistant for Gerald Brown, a fine man and a liberal member of the Board. But after several months on the job, much as I admired Gerry and appreciated his offering me the job that enabled me to return from LA, I again felt driven to seek other employment. There was something else I was supposed to do. I didn't know what it was; I only knew what it wasn't. It wasn't writing decisions at the NLRB.
My only resource at the time was Art Christopher, a short, squarely built, fiftyish African American trial examiner at the NLRB. He liked spending time with young women, and he dangled the many contacts and connections he had as an incentive for me to join him for lunch. I had numerous luncheons with him, none of which produced a single job lead.
But, finally, indirectly Art was responsible for my finding another job. In the summer of 1965, I complained to my friend, Jackie Williams, who had formerly worked at the NLRB, that I had just had another fruitless luncheon with Art. Jackie, a young African American woman lawyer, responded by saying, "You want another job? Why don't you go across the street and see Charlie Duncan at the EEOC?" Duncan, an African American lawyer, had been Jackie's professor at the Howard University Law School. Now he was the general counsel of a brand new agency, and Jackie arranged an interview for me with him.
The EEOC had been established to implement a new law that prohibited employment discrimination, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of l964. That law prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin by employers, labor unions, and employment agencies. Later, age discrimination and discrimination based on physical and mental disabilities were added. Title VII was much broader than the Equal Pay Act. It prohibited discrimination not only in pay but in all terms and conditions of employment, including recruitment, promotions, and employee benefits. The Act had just become effective that summer.
As originally drafted, Title VII did not prohibit sex discrimination, but on a wintry day in February 1964, 81-year-old Congressman Howard W. Smith introduced an amendment to do so. He was chairman of the House Committee on Rules, which was then preparing to consider the civil rights bill for clearance to the floor. The suggestion that he introduce an amendment to add the category of sex discrimination to Title VII's prohibitions came to him from Alice Paul, founder of the National Woman's Party, and her lieutenants. His motives in doing so were apparently mixed. He was a Virginia segregationist and the principal opponent of the civil rights bill. He may have viewed the amendment as a tactic to delay or forestall the bill's passage. On the other hand, he may have favored the amendment because he didn't want African Americans getting rights at the expense of white women. In any event, after some wrangling, the bill became law with the prohibition against sex discrimination in it.
Actually, I had an ideal background for the EEOC, having spent six years at the NLRB, the agency that enforced the National Labor Relations Act, the model for Title VII. Beyond that, however, my coming to the EEOC was not solely a matter of chance. As a Jew who had escaped from Germany, I naturally had an interest in the rights of minorities. Furthermore, I had been concerned with the rights of African Americans from childhood when I was struck by the segregated buses, water fountains, restrooms, and benches and the racist headlines and articles in southern newspapers as my family traveled through the South en route to Miami Beach for the winter.
In addition, from the age of ten, I had felt there was a purpose to my life, a mission I had to accomplish, and that I was not free as other girls and women were simply to marry, raise a family, and pursue happiness. This feeling arose from three factors in my life: I had been born only because my mother's favored abortionist was out of the country, my immediate family and I had escaped the Holocaust, and I was bright. To me, that meant that I had been saved to make a contribution to the world. But I had no idea what it was to be.
Unfortunately, as I was growing up, there was no one with whom I could discuss such thoughts. As far as I knew, I was alone in having them. I felt that if I ever expressed such thoughts to anyone, my ideas would seem unbelievably arrogant. So, I kept them to myself and grew up essentially a lonely child. Years later, through the women's movement, I learned that there were other girls and women like me who wanted to play a role in society. But as children, we were alone and considered ourselves misfits.
Before I could begin work at the EEOC, a short period of time was needed to process the necessary paperwork. While waiting, I received a call from Charlie Duncan, asking me to come to his office as he had to talk to me "confidentially" about something right away. I could not imagine what it might be.
When I arrived, he began by asking: "Have you ever been married to or had any relationship with . . . "
An eternity elapsed before he finished that question. I wondered whose name might come next. I was thirty-seven years old and hadn't reached that age without having had a number of relationships. Which one would Charlie ask me about? What would I say, and how would it affect my career?
"Lee Pressman?" he concluded.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Lee Pressman, a graduate of Cornell and the Harvard Law School, had held a number of prestigious positions in and out of government and had made significant contributions to the labor movement. He had, however, achieved notoriety through his involvement with Communists in the 1930s and 1940s. He was old enough to be my father, but he was not related to me.
"No," I said to Charlie, "I'm not related to Lee Pressman."
How ironic this was. Had my father been one of the most brilliant labor attorneys in the country, I probably would not have been hired at the EEOC. Since my father was instead a largely illiterate Jewish immigrant, I was deemed qualified.
There was one additional hurdle. Charlie said that I would need to provide a reference from a member of Congress. At first, I was stymied by this request, but then I remembered a tenuous connection to a senator.
Many months earlier, I had attended a function where one of the speakers was a senator who referred to his immigrant parents. Following his talk, I wrote him that my parents and I were also immigrants and asked for his help in advancing my career. Shortly thereafter, I received a phone call from the senator's administrative assistant inviting me to come in for a meeting, which I did. We had a pleasant chat, but no job prospects opened up as a result of it. We did, however, maintain a sporadic correspondence thereafter.
When Charlie asked me for a congressional reference, I remembered this connection. By this time, the senator's aide had returned to his home state to pursue his own political career, so I wrote him asking whether he could secure the senator's endorsement for me. To my surprise, he answered with a phone call, saying he was flying to Washington on business soon and asking me to meet him for a drink at the Mayflower Hotel. I thought this was an odd way to get a reference, but I agreed to meet him.
The senator's aide and I met in the Café Promenade, had drinks, and danced. We chatted while we danced, and he mentioned his young wife and baby son. He said he'd be happy to get me the senator's reference--and then invited me up to his room. I declined, and he then gave me the most unusual excuse I'd ever heard for a man's making a pass: "Man is a delicate seismological instrument."
I bade him good night and caught a cab home. While in the cab, I berated myself. All my life I'd read biographies and autobiographies of famous women, many of whom had advanced their careers by bedding famous men. Evita Peron was an outstanding example. What was wrong with me? Why had I turned the senator's assistant down? He was certainly attractive enough. Why did I have to be so strait-laced? I had destroyed the possibility of getting the most challenging job I'd ever been offered.
But the senator's assistant was true to his word. Charlie received a reference for me from the senator, and I joined the EEOC as the first woman attorney in the general counsel's office.
Thus I found myself in 1965 in a brand new job in a brand new agency with responsibility for fighting discrimination, including that based on sex. At that time, few Americans were aware that there was such a thing as sex discrimination. Words like 'sex discrimination' and 'women's rights' hadn't yet become part of our national vocabulary. In my early speeches for the EEOC, any reference to women's rights was greeted with laughter.
At that time, men and women basically 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 was bright, common wisdom had it that she was to conceal her intelligence. She was to be attractive--but not too attractive. She was not to have career ambition, although she could work for a few years before marriage as a secretary, saleswoman, schoolteacher, telephone operator, or nurse. It was expected that she would be a virgin when she married. When she had children, she was to raise them differently so that they, too, would continue in the modes of behavior appropriate to their sex. If she divorced, which would reflect poorly on her, she might receive an award of alimony and child support--although it was unlikely that she would receive the monies for more than a few years. If she failed to marry, she was an old maid relegated to the periphery of life.
Married women could work outside the home only if dire household finances required it. Under no circumstances were they to earn more money than their husbands.
Women were not to be opinionated or assertive. They were expected to show an interest in fashion, books, ballet, cooking, sewing, knitting, and volunteer activities. Political activities were acceptable as long as they were conducted behind the scenes.
Of course, not all women were able or wanted to fit into this pattern, and there were always exceptions. But most women did what they were told because society exacted a high price from deviants.
Men, on the other hand, were the decision-makers and activists. They were the ones who became presidents, legislators, generals, police chiefs, school principals, and corporate executives. They were the heads of their households, and wives and children deferred to their wishes. Men were expected to take the initiative in dating, to have sexual experiences before marriage, to propose marriage, to bear the financial burden for the entire family, and to have little or nothing to do with running their households and raising their children. It was assumed that they would be insensitive, uncaring, and inarticulate--and interested in activities such as sports, drinking, gambling, extramarital affairs, and making money.
Most men did what they were told, too.
This picture of our society was true for most of the population. There were, however, other dynamics at play in minority communities. Historically, for example, more African American women than men attended college. But for most Americans, this was the climate in which the Commission and I, as a staff member, were supposed to eliminate sex discrimination.
Not only was the country unconcerned with sex discrimination, so were most of the people at the Commission. They had come there to fight racial discrimination; they did not want the Commission's time and money sidetracked into sex discrimination.
But the country and the EEOC were in for a shock. In the Commission's first fiscal year, about 37 percent of the complaints alleged sex discrimination, and these complaints raised a host of new issues that were more difficult than those raised by the complaints of race discrimination. Could employers continue to advertise in classified advertising columns headed "Help Wanted--Male" and "Help Wanted--Female"? Did they have to hire women for jobs traditionally reserved for men? Could airlines continue to ground or fire stewardesses when they married or reached the age of thirty-two or thirty-five? What about state protective laws that prohibited the employment of women in certain occupations, limited the number of hours they could work and the amount of weight they could lift, and required certain benefits for them, such as seats and rest periods? Did school boards have to keep teachers on after they became pregnant? What would students think if they saw pregnant teachers? Wouldn't they know they'd had sexual intercourse? Did employers have to provide the same pensions to men and women even though women as a class outlived men?
Although the EEOC was responsible for deciding these questions, no one really knew how to resolve them. There had been no nationwide movement for women's rights, like the civil rights movement, immediately preceding the enactment of the sex discrimination prohibitions, and there was scant legislative history.
As for me, when I came to the EEOC, I was blithely unaware of the legislative history of the Act. I just read the law and thought it prohibited sex discrimination in employment. For that heretical notion, Charlie Duncan called me a "sex maniac."
My bêtes noires at the Commission were Luther Holcomb, the vice-chairman; Herman Edelsberg, the executive director; and Richard (Dick) Berg, the deputy general counsel. All three were opposed to women's rights. It pained me that two of them were Jewish.
Holcomb was a former Baptist minister from Dallas and the Commission's most conservative member. Through their shared Texas backgrounds, he had a personal relationship with President Lyndon Johnson and kept him informed of developments at the EEOC. I sat behind Holcomb when he testified before Congress shortly after the Act became effective and asked that the prohibition of sex discrimination be removed. Later, he asked Charlie to remove me from the assignment of writing the lead decision in the stewardess cases because I was in favor of women's rights. To him that meant I was prejudiced. Charlie refused. Later still, when the tide had turned in favor of women, Holcomb had the effrontery to ask me why women's groups turned to me rather than him for counsel.
Edelsberg had an impressive background. Before coming to the EEOC, he had served as an attorney for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and, for almost twenty years, as director of the Washington, DC, office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'nai B'rith. At his first press conference at the EEOC, however, he told reporters that he and the other men at the Commission thought men were entitled to have female secretaries. (3) Thefollowing year, he publicly labeled the sex discrimination provision a "fluke . . . conceived out of wedlock." (4)
In an article published in 1964, before the EEOC had commenced operations, Dick Berg described the sex discrimination amendment as an "orphan" and recommended that the exclusion of women from jobs "involving strenuous activity, hazardous working conditions, or close contact with fellow workers or customers" and from "certain hazardous occupations, principally mining" remain lawful. (5) He argued that an employer who refused to assign overtime or night work to women because of state law or to hire them for jobs requiring overtime or night work should not be found in violation of Title VII. Berg believed that a woman's place was in the home.
In addition to Holcomb, the other commissioners were Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., the chairman; Aileen Clarke Hernandez; Dick Graham; and Sam Jackson.
Roosevelt had no real interest in the Commission and wasn't there long enough for his views on women's rights, whatever they were, to matter. His sights were set on running for governor of New York, and he resigned from the EEOC in 1966 to announce his candidacy. The only remark of his I remember involved the decor of his office: "This place looks like a French whorehouse."
Hernandez, the first African American woman commissioner and the first woman commissioner, had served as assistant chief of the California Fair Employment Practices Division before coming to the EEOC. Graham was a business executive who had served as director of the Peace Corps in Tunisia. Both were ardent feminists.
Jackson, an African American lawyer who had been president of the Topeka, Kansas, branch of the NAACP, was sympathetic to the fight to end discrimination against women; he viewed it in the context of discrimination against African American women. But he felt that discrimination against African Americans deserved the Commission's greater attention.
Roosevelt, Holcomb, and Hernandez were Democrats; Graham and Jackson, Republicans.
In the area of sex discrimination, the EEOC moved very slowly and conservatively 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 come to grips with them in ways that would expand employment opportunities for women--which was, after all, the purpose of the prohibition against sex discrimination.
I became the staff person who stood for aggressive enforcement of the sex discrimination prohibitions of the Act, and this caused me no end of grief. At the end of one day, after a particularly frustrating discussion with Edelsberg, I left the EEOC building with tears streaming down my face. I didn't know how I had gotten into this position--fighting for women's rights. No one had elected me to represent women. Why was I engaged in this battle against men who had power where I had none?
While I knew that Commissioners Aileen Hernandez and Dick Graham felt as I did, they were commissioners; I was just a staff lawyer. I did not think I had the option of making common cause with them. At the Commission, I was basically on my own.
But outside the Commission, I developed a network of support. Through my work, I came in contact at various government agencies with midlevel staffers like myself who were concerned with improving the rights of women. Together, we formed an informal network for support and information sharing. I passed on to this network information on women's rights cases that were developing at the EEOC, which the members of this network would then pass on to Marguerite Rawalt, a trailblazing feminist attorney. Marguerite, in turn, would relay this information to her network of feminist attorneys. These attorneys would then represent the complaining parties in precedent-setting sex discrimination lawsuits.
During my early days at the Commission, a writer came to the EEOC. She had become famous through writing a book in 1963 called The Feminine Mystique, which dealt with the frustrations of women who were housewives and mothers and did not work outside the home. Now, she was interviewing EEOC officials and staff for a second book. Her name was Betty Friedan.
When we met, Betty asked me to reveal problems and conflicts at the Commission. As a staff member, however, I did not feel I could publicly speak out about the Commission's dereliction, and I did not tell her what was happening with regard to women's issues. But when she came a second time, I was feeling particularly frustrated at the Commission's failure to implement the law for women, and I invited her into my office. I told her, with tears in my eyes, that the country needed an organization to fight for women like the NAACP fought for African Americans.
Subsequent events reinforced this conclusion. In June 1966, at the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women in Washington, DC, the attendees wanted to pass a resolution demanding the reappointment of Commissioner Dick Graham and the enforcement of Title VII for women. They became enraged when the leadership told them that they did not have the authority to pass resolutions. As a result, at a luncheon at the Conference, Betty Friedan and a small group planned an organization that subsequently became NOW. Its purpose, as written by Betty on a paper napkin, was "to take the actions needed to bring women into the mainstream of American society, now, full equality for women [sic], in fully equal partnership with men." By the end of the day, everyone at the Conference who wanted to join had tossed $5 into a war chest and NOW had twenty-eight members. Those twenty-eight were NOW's original founders.
Another twenty-six, of whom I was one, were added that fall at an organizing conference in Washington, DC. We met in the basement of the Washington Post and adopted a statement of purpose and skeletal bylaws. Most of us did not know each other. One of the realities of those days was that there was no national network whereby women and men interested in women's rights could come to know each other and work together. What we had in common was a frustration with the status of women and a determination to do something about it. The concept of women's rights was an idea whose time had come.
After its founding, NOW embarked upon an ambitious program of activities to get the EEOC to enforce Title VII for women. It filed lawsuits, petitioned the EEOC for public hearings, picketed the EEOC and the White House, and generally mobilized public opinion.
I became involved in an underground activity. I took to meeting privately at night in the Southwest Washington apartment of Mary Eastwood, a Justice Department attorney and founder of NOW, with her and two other government lawyers: Phineas Indritz, also a NOW founder, and Caruthers Berger. At those evening meetings, I discussed the inaction of the Commission that I had witnessed during that day or week with regard to women's rights, and then we drafted letters from NOW to the Commission demanding that action be taken in those areas. To my amazement, no one at the Commission ever questioned how NOW had become privy to the Commission's deliberations.
As a result of pressure by NOW, the EEOC began to take seriously its mandate to eliminate sex discrimination in employment. It conducted hearings and began to issue interpretations and decisions implementing women's rights. The Commission ruled that employers could no longer advertise in sex-segregated advertising columns. With narrow exceptions, all jobs had to be open to men and women alike, and members of both sexes were entitled to equality in all terms and conditions of employment. I had the great pleasure and privilege of drafting the lead decision finding that the airlines' policies towards stewardesses were unlawful.
The Commission ruled that a woman could not be refused employment or terminated because of the preferences of her employer, coworkers, clients, or customers or because she was pregnant or had children. State laws that restricted women's employment were superseded by Title VII; those that required benefits for women were equally applicable to men.
Men also used the remedies provided by Title VII, although to a much lesser extent. They complained when they were excluded from traditionally female jobs, such as nursing, or were prohibited from wearing beards, mustaches, or long hair on the job.
The EEOC for the first time in this country began the collection of statistics from employers on their employment of women and minorities in various categories of employment.
NOW was the first organization formed to fight for women's rights in the mid-1960s, but many others followed. Traditional women's organizations, which had initially refused to join in the struggle, did so later, and new organizations were formed. Among them were the Women's Equity Action League (WEAL), a spin-off from NOW, and Federally Employed Women (FEW), both founded in 1968, and both organizations of which I was a founder. Through my activities in FEW, I learned that men in the federal government had opportunities to attend training programs that were not, as a practical matter, available to women. One of the sites for these programs was the Federal Executive Institute (FEI), a residential facility operated by the Civil Service Commission (CSC), now the Office of Personnel Management, in Charlottesville, Virginia. While there were various programs at FEI, the core program was an eight-week course for federal employees in the three top grades, GS-16, -17, and -18 (now called supergrades). Since women rarely reached those grades, they rarely had an opportunity to get this training.
As a result of my letter of complaint to CSC and similar complaints from others, CSC developed a one-week program for a small group of women--the first time in its history that there would be a special program for women at FEI. Tina Hobson, director of CSC's Federal Women's Program, selected ten or twelve women to attend this program from among women who had expressed an interest in getting FEI training. She and I attended this historic and exhilarating week. Thereafter, CSC began for the first time to actively recruit women for attendance at FEI.
Unions, most of which were initially hostile to women's rights, became involved in the struggle. They were in fact in the forefront of the pay equity struggle, the fight to secure equal pay for women for work of comparable worth or value to that of men. The various levels of government also became more active: Presidents signed executive orders, federal and state laws and municipal ordinances were passed, and court decisions issued.
New government agencies were created to fight discrimination, such as the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) in the Department of Labor. The OFCCP requires contractors and subcontractors of the federal government to do more than simply not discriminate. They are required to take affirmative action to hire and promote women or risk the loss of millions of dollars in government contracts.
Discrimination based on sex or marital status in the sale and rental of housing and in the granting of credit was prohibited. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits educational institutions, from preschools through colleges and universities, that receive federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex against students and all employees, including administrative personnel and faculty members. One of the effects of Title IX has been the requirement for equality in expenditures for school athletic programs.
Legislation in 1972 gave the EEOC the power to enforce its orders in the courts. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 codified the EEOC's guidelines on pregnancy and leave in connection with pregnancy. In 1991, for the first time, women were given the right to secure limited monetary damages for harassment and other intentional sex discrimination. About two weeks after taking office, President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act. This law requires employers to provide their employees with up to twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave each year in connection with the birth or adoption of a child or the serious illness of a child, spouse, or parent. Due to all this activity, the American public became aware that there was a new national priority: equal rights for women.
Our society has undergone a massive change. Women are now found in large numbers in professional schools and in the professions, and, to a much lesser extent, in executive suites and legislatures. They work at a host of technical and blue-collar jobs previously closed to them. In 1976, women were admitted to West Point and our other military academies, a development that was unthinkable before the women's movement. Women's representation in the military increased from 1.6 percent in 1972 to 13 percent by 1990, and, since the 1980s, the variety of their assignments has increased substantially. Women-owned businesses are now one-third of all businesses in the United States and employ one out of five American workers. Over six hundred colleges and universities have women's studies programs.
When I first began giving talks on Title VII, I said that the Act involved only employment. That was literally true and I believed it, but I was naive. The effects of Title VII spilled over onto every area of our society. Laws have changed women's rights with regard to abortion, divorce, alimony, child custody, child support, rape, jury service, appointments as administrators and executors of estates, sentencing for crimes, and admission to places of public accommodation, such as clubs, restaurants, and bars. Our spoken language has changed, and work continues on the development of gender-neutral written language in laws, textbooks, religious texts, and publications of all sorts.
Eighteen years after the founding of NOW, a woman ran for Vice President of the United States, and nine years after that, a woman became attorney general.
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. Eli Ginzberg, a Columbia University economist and chairman of the National Commission for Manpower Policy, said that the increase in the number and proportion of women who work is the single most outstanding phenomenon of our century. In August and September 1995, 50,000 men and women attended the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China.
In the early 1980s, when my daughter, Zia, was about eleven years old, we spent a week in Chautauqua, New York, where Betty Friedan was lecturing. Betty invited us to her room for a drink, and as we were going there, I said to Zia, "You're going to meet a woman who's changed the lives of women all over the world."
"China, too?" she asked.
"China, too," I answered.
We've achieved a lot, but much remains to be done--and new problems face us. Women are still subject not only to sex discrimination, but if they are older women, women of color, or have disabilities, they may be the victims of multiple discrimination. Women are still far from being represented equally in political life. They comprise a mere 12 percent of the members of Congress; no woman has ever served as President, Vice President, speaker of the House of Representatives, or majority leader of the Senate--and only rarely has a woman served as full committee chair of either body of Congress. Only three states have women governors. Women are still underrepresented in corporate boardrooms and executive suites and in top positions in academia and unions. They still do not receive equal pay for equal or substantially equal work. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has yet to be ratified, and the US has not yet joined the overwhelming majority of the world's nations in ratifying the United Nation's Convention To Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Complaints of sexual harassment are one of the fastest-growing areas of employment discrimination cases at the EEOC. Student-to-student sexual harassment at all levels of education is on the increase. We have a disproportionate number of women in poverty, and women in poverty means children in poverty. There are increasing numbers of women and children among the homeless, and we need more safe houses and services for battered women. The battle for reproductive choice goes on. Millions of women do not have health care coverage. Women have to deal with new realities, such as combining a demanding position with marriage and raising a family, and finding affordable, quality household help and childcare. Women increasingly find themselves in the sandwich generation--having to be the caretaker both for their children and their parents.
When we look beyond the US to the rest of the world, the status of women is often shocking. In Third World countries, culture, religion, and law often deprive women of basic human rights and sometimes relegate them to almost subhuman status. Violence against women is a worldwide problem. Female genital mutilation continues, as do child marriages, the selling of young girls into prostitution, and the use of rape and forced impregnation as political weapons.
Nonetheless, the changes we've seen in the past thirty years have been breathtaking.
In thinking about where we've been, where we are, and where we're going, I can't say it any better than the anonymous African American woman Dr. Martin Luther King was fond of quoting:
We ain't what we oughta be,
We ain't what we wanna be,
We ain't what we gonna be,
But, thank God, we ain't what we was.
This chapter is dedicated to Mary Eastwood and to the memory of Catherine East and Phineas Indritz, my three closest colleagues in the struggle for women's rights--and to all the others.
3 Caroline Bird with Sara Welles Briller, Born Female:The High Cost of Keeping Women Down, rev. ed. (New York:David McKay, 1970) 14. Return to Text
4 Remarks, NYU Annual Conference on Labor, 61 LRR 253-5 (Apr. 25, 1966); Bird with Briller 15. Return to Text
5 Dick Berg, "Equal Employment Opportunity Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964," Brooklyn Law Review 31 (1964): 62, 79. Return to Text
Copyright© 1999 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes