Foot Soldier for Women's Rights Retells Stories From the Front Lines

Arts & Culture

BY ANDREW FABIAN SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY AUG 14, 2020

“You mentioned the National Organization of Women, but N.O.W. stands for the National Organization for Women,” says Sonia Pressman Fuentes. As one of the founders of the organization, Fuentes would know. While the distinction seems minor at first glance, for a lawyer and lifelong activist well versed in the weight of words on legal discourse, the distinction carries heavy implications. An organization “of” anything sounds static and aimless, as though its members just sit around and celebrate whatever arbitrary characteristics bind them together. An organization “for” something has direction and purpose, it implies a plan of action. And for Fuentes, who dazzled a virtual audience with her incisive intellect and war stories from the front lines of the fight for women’s equality, action is everything.

As part of Florida Studio Theatre’s Suffragist Saturdays, the 92-year-old Fuentes, a Sarasota resident, talked about her life as a prominent lawyer, writer and advocate for women’s rights. Over the course of the event, viewers learned how her parents, born in Poland but living in Berlin at the onset of WWII, fled Germany with their family into Antwerp before getting to the US under furtive circumstances. She recalled how these early experiences were pivotal in instilling in her a sense of purpose. “I felt I was spared by fate for a higher purpose,” she says, “but I could never say that to anybody because they would think I was crazy.”

Instead, she took that secret sense of purpose to Cornell University and then the University of Miami, where she studied law and began a journey that would unwittingly place her on the front lines of social justice. Her first prominent job came when she joined the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, one of the first women to do so. “To put it nicely, they were lethargic about handling sex discrimination cases,” she says, “and I was the only woman in the general counsel’s office at that time.” From there, she went on to testify in Congress after drafting an opening statement making the case for the sex discrimination facets of the Civil Rights Act. “I went to speak to the committee never knowing women’s rights would be my life’s work,” she says.

From there, Fuentes described intimate moments running in the highest levels of the women’s movement, including a visit with Alice Paul in 1976 at Paul’s nursing home in New Jersey. “We had a conversation about different things, and then she said she felt guilty,” says Fuentes. “I asked her why, and this woman who had devoted her entire life to women told me she felt guilty she wasn’t doing anything for women.”

Viewers of the virtual event may have seen something similar in Fuentes—an uncompromising sense of what’s right the unyielding pursuit of attaining it. “Some people think everything has been accomplished for women’s rights,” says Fuentes, “but when I give a talk, I usually end with issues that remain.” From a list of 20, she whittled it down to just five: violence against women, maternal mortality, the lack of affordable and competent childcare, women’s reproductive rights, and human trafficking.

Florida Studio Theatre

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