Sonia Pressman Fuentes is an American author, speaker, feminist leader and lawyer. She was a founder of National Organization for Women (NOW) and Federally Employed Women (FEW), and was the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). How does someone with such a rich history "retire"?
From the time she was a young girl, Sonia Pressman Fuentes lived with this funny feeling that there was a mission she had to accomplish. She was not free to just marry, have a family, and pursue happiness like other girls and women could. No, Sonia had a special purpose. This notion came from three things: the first was that she’d been born only because her mother’s favorite abortionist was out of the country; the second, that she and her immediate family had escaped the Holocaust; and the third was that she was bright. To her, all this added up to the idea that she’d been saved in order to make a contribution to the world.
For many years, she did just that. Sonia had a successful 36-year career as an attorney and executive with both the federal government and multinational corporations. As a leading voice in the second wave of the women’s movement in the United States, Sonia was one of the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and Federally Employed Women and became the first female attorney employed in the Office of the General Counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where she drafted many of the EEOC’s initial landmark decisions. Her work was important. It was satisfying. In fact, she’d always thought she’d work until she dropped. However, when nearing 65 she found herself working as an attorney at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, stuck in a job she really wasn’t altogether crazy about, that Sonia decided to retire. Returning home from her retirement party on May 29, 1993, exactly one day before her 65th birthday, the reality of what she’d done finally hit her. What on earth was she going to do now?
Sonia had always heard it was important before you retire to have a plan for what you were going to do afterward. Knowing that the D.C. Superior Court had a mediation program touted as one of the best in the country, Sonia decided that after retirement she would volunteer there. She applied and was told she’d made the first cut in her area of choice—domestic relations. People told her she was crazy by wanting to get involved with domestic cases. But Sonia had always been interested in human relations and felt it would be a good niche for her. When orientation day came, she and about 100 others were invited to attend mock sessions. However, stepping into that mock session proved to be completely different from what Sonia had anticipated.
“I was asked to go into a mock session where a husband and wife were arguing about divorce and child custody. As they were yelling at each other, I said to myself, ‘What do I need this for?’ I stayed the rest of the day and when I went home, I wrote to the court and said, ‘Take me off the list.’”
Sonia’s plan for retirement hadn’t worked out. She didn’t know what to do. The euphoria of retirement had worn off and she became dejected.
“When I worked, my job took me downtown from where I lived in Potomac, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. I always met people for lunch, or after work for dinner, and then we went on to a movie or theater in the evening. I wouldn’t get home until 10ish at night. The work tied me into a whole social life and now that was gone. My whole life I’d been ambitious and always striving for the next rung of the ladder. Everything was over—but I was still alive.”
Almost all the retirees Sonia knew had seemed to segue into retirement just fine. She was the only one left feeling this way, as if she had all this time on her hands and nothing meaningful to do with it.
“That’s not the book you want to write,” Sara said. “You want to write a book of humorous stories about your parents, the kind of stories you’ve been telling me. And you want to write it yourself.”
Sonia volunteered for a number of months at the Smithsonian, working the front desk in the National Museum of Natural History, but that didn’t turn out to be quite what she was looking for. She spent a year or so volunteering with the Montgomery County Human Relations Council, working one day a week as a volunteer lawyer, but the job situation was frustrating and stressful.
“I only worked one day a week and I couldn’t do much in one day. They didn’t expect me to tackle a week’s worth of work in that one day, but I tried to do it the best I could. I used to come home from that job and I was so stressed out from trying to do that week’s worth of work in one day that I would have to go to bed.”
Having had back surgery in the ‘70s, Sonia began experiencing horrific back pain for the first time in years. Clearly, this was not the volunteer job for her.
Still searching for her next purpose, Sonia started toying with the idea of commemorating the historic role she’d played in the women’s movement. Having spent years working on groundbreaking legislation and interesting cases, she wanted to write a book about the legal history in which she’d participated. There was just one problem. Who wanted to go through a basement full of files and write a lengthy discourse alone? So, Sonia embarked on a search to find somebody to write it with her.
“Initially, I couldn’t find anybody. Writers will work with non-celebrities only upon the payment of thousands of dollars. I did find a married couple who were both professors who wanted to write the book with me, but they would have to take a year’s leave from their jobs and I would have to pay their salaries during that time.”
Fronting thousands of dollars to write this book was unrealistic for Sonia. However, she still wanted to write it. So she continued looking for a way until she felt there was nothing left to do. The book would not be written. Finally, on the advice of a friend, Sonia wound up at the Washington, D.C. library of the Foundation Center, a nonprofit organization that focuses on foundations. There she thought she could learn how to apply for a grant to pay a writer to work with her. Knowing she’d exhausted all other avenues, Sonia felt certain that if her trip to the Foundation Center library didn’t pan out, it would mean the end of her book. Thumbing through the brochures on grant writing at the Foundation Center, it became clear to Sonia that grant writing required an expertise of its own. She was not prepared to devote the time and finances to learning the craft. Just as she was about ready to give up hope, Sonia found a résumé and business card mixed in among the brochures. The information said: Sara Fisher, Writer, Editor, Proofreader. Sonia decided to call. After all, what did she have to lose?
Meeting Sara over coffee, the two women chatted about their lives, and Sonia talked about her desire to write a book about the second wave of the women’s movement.
As they talked, Sara said something that caught Sonia completely off guard. “That’s not the book you want to write,” Sara said. “You want to write a book of humorous stories about your parents, the kind of stories you’ve been telling me. And you want to write it yourself.” Sonia was floored. Yet, as the words sunk in, she realized that Sara was right. Leaving their meeting, Sonia went right home and immediately got to work.
Writing the book became a journey of its own. Sonia took writing workshops and classes and struggled to accurately portray everything exactly as it had happened. “I am a perfectionist and am very into truth and accuracy. When I wrote about a Monday morning, I wanted to know if it was sunny or cloudy. I was constantly writing people to find out the facts.”
Five-and-a-half years later, she had finished her memoir, Eat First—You Don’t Know What They’ll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter. “I didn’t know if anything would come of it, but I did know why I was doing it. I didn’t want my parents’ lives to be forgotten. I felt their generation was disappearing and I wanted to preserve that. Also, I didn’t want my own life to be forgotten.”
Sonia Pressman Fuentes and her Parents, Hinda and Zysia Pressman
Berlin, Germany, circa 1931
“I did know why I was doing it. I didn’t want my parents’ lives to be forgotten. I felt their generation was disappearing and I wanted to preserve that. Also, I didn’t want my own life to be forgotten.”
With the book written, all that was left to do was get it published—which turned out to be an entire chapter of its own. Finally, after literally hundreds of letters sent to publishers and one near-miss with a shaky contract, Sonia found an on-demand publishing house that would meet her needs, Xlibris Corporation. In 1999, her memoir was released. And thus began a whole new phase in Sonia’s life.
With her book now published, Sonia’s life is richer and fuller than ever before. Having moved to Sarasota, Florida, a small town with big city amenities, Sonia created a full, second life there. It is a life complete with new friends, new causes to champion, and a full social calendar. She has also found herself something of a local celebrity.
“Before I moved to Sarasota, I was known in the very small world of women’s rights and feminists. Anybody who was a feminist and had been around for a while knew me. But nobody outside had ever heard of me. Since I came to Sarasota, which is a small town, I’ve given speeches and been in the newspaper. Here I am a fairly well-known person. I’ve never had that before.”
Writing her story and her parents’ story was truly a life-changing experience for Sonia. In addition to her work with several boards and committees and a new endeavor to promote reforms needed in maternal and child health care, Sonia now spends much of her time promoting her book and giving speeches.
Sonia had always wanted to be a writer but had never been sure that would happen. “I will never forget that in the beginning when I started to write and people would say, ‘What do you do?’ I would feel very uncomfortable saying I was a writer because I didn’t think it was the truth. I felt like I was palming myself off as something I wasn’t. Now I know that I am. I am a writer, a public speaker, and a community activist. My life has blossomed into something it has never been before.”
As Sonia says in one of her writings, “From a very shaky beginning as a retiree, I have entered upon the richest phase of my life.”
Thank you Sonia, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2010 by Tamar Burris and Story of My Life