Sonia Fuentes did not intend to write this book. After retiring from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1993, she decided to write a history of her involvement in the women's movement. Since she didn't want to spend the time required to go through her extensive papers, she searched for a writer to work with her. One writer she met told her, "That's not the book you want to write. You want to write a book of humorous stories about your parents, and you want to write it yourself. I'll help with the editing."
As it turned out, Fuentes did quite a bit of research before this book was finished, on the Holocaust, Jewish immigration and life in New York City, and the second wave of the women's movement. She was a witness to all these events, the first woman attorney in the General Counsel's Office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and one of the founders of the National Organization of Women (NOW) in 1966.
The first six sections of the book are in roughly chronological order—beginning with her parents' marriage and her family's escape from Nazi Germany and ending with her daughter's departure for college. The next section is a collection of photographs from her toddler years to the present, picturing her with family members as well as with the founding members of NOW. The final three sections are composed of short episodes from her life which can be read alone or before starting the chronological part of the book.
I particularly enjoyed her description of the day NOW was founded. At a conference on the Status of Women in Washington, D.C. in June 1966, the attendees became enraged when told they did not have the authority to pass a resolution demanding enforcement for women of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited employment discrimination. During a luncheon at the conference, Betty Friedan and a small group planned the organization that became NOW. Its purpose was written by Friedan on a paper napkin.
At the time, the author was struggling for enforcement of the sex discrimination prohibitions of Title VII in the EEOC. She left the building one day with tears streaming down her face, asking herself, "How I had gotten into this position?No one had elected me to represent women. Why was I engaged in this battle against men who had power where I had none?"
Fuentes formed a network of women in Washington and later worked with NOW to eliminate sex discrimination. She drafted the lead decision finding the airlines' policies toward stewardesses unlawful.
The author's humor is evident throughout the book and must have carried her through some of the difficult times. She writes, "While men generally did not find me attractive in the United States, as soon as I left the country, my attractiveness quotient shot right up. On my first trip to Israel, I had not one, but two romances. The first, however, lasted only a few minutes." The proprietor of a jewelry store suddenly had proposed as she admired the items in his display case. "Don't worry," he said. "We can live half the year in Israel, and half in the United States." She explains, "Due to the short time of the stopover, I was forced to turn him down. I've wondered whether he was just an Israeli desperate to get to the United States or a man struck blind by my attractiveness. I've always chosen to believe the latter."
Fuentes describes her birth as "accidental." Living in Berlin in 1927, her mother, 36 with a 13-year-old son, had suffered an ectopic pregnancy and been warned against future pregnancies by her doctor. Scheduled for an abortion after becoming pregnant with Sonia, she changed her mind when the abortionist left town and her husband said, "Let it be already." Years later, she explained to her daughter, "We didn't know it was going to be you." Though her parents did not understand her career drive and lack of interest in the domestic arts, their love for her is obvious.
The author married in her forties and had a child, dealing with the problems of every working mother and, later, life as a single parent. The humor displayed in her stories about those struggles aroused my deep admiration.
This book will teach you something about the history of women's rights and the culture and customs of immigrant European Jews in the United States. What makes it a pleasure to read, however, is the way Fuentes allows us to see the vulnerable, even funny side of being a feminist. She certainly has led a life worth recording.
(You can read more about Sonia on her website: www.erraticimpact.com/fuentes.)
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