“Men and women lived in two different worlds,” Sonia Pressman Fuentes says of U.S. society circa 1965. That was the year Fuentes joined the newly created General Counsel's office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as its first woman attorney. At the time, “not only was most of the country uninterested in gender discrimination, so were most of the EEOC commissioners and staff.”
In an October 24 presentation hosted by Cornell Law School's Dorothea S. Clarke Program in Feminist Jurisprudence, Fuentes recounted her push for women’s rights within the EEOC amid great resistance. In 1966, she became one of the forty-nine founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which embarked on an ambitious program to promote the enforcement of the prohibition on sex discrimination included in 1964’s Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
In the years since, “the effects of Title VII have spilled over into every area of our society,” said Fuentes. Her presentation, “The Legal Revolution in American Women’s Rights – and the Problems that Remain,” surveyed the advances for women in such spheres as legislative protection, career and educational opportunities, and representation in the government. Fuentes observed, “The changes in women’s status that we have seen in the last almost fifty years have been mind-blowing, way beyond anything those of us who founded NOW had in mind.”
Nonetheless, Fuentes cautioned, a slew of problems remain. She enumerated more than two dozen impediments to women’s rights in the U.S. and abroad, including the pay gap, efforts to whittle down reproductive rights, rampant sexual violence against women, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and inadequate infant and maternal healthcare.
Cynthia Grant Bowman, Dorothea S. Clarke Professor of Law, remarked, “It is an inspiration for current students to hear about how much a small group of persons determined to bring about social change can achieve – and to hear Fuentes’ continuing commitment to addressing the problems that remain.”
When she began advocating women’s rights in the ‘60s, Fuentes noted that a key weapon of her opposition was ridicule. Asked by an audience member if this was still the case, Fuentes referenced Congressman Todd Akin’s recent comments on “legitimate rape.” “I don’t think there’s as much ridicule, but there are ridiculous arguments,” she said.
She also observed that today many women who support equal rights nonetheless eschew the term “feminist,” because they associate it with being unfeminine or undesirable. She remarked that she sees this proclivity as an internalization of the slanders deployed by women’s rights opponents, constituting another weapon that threatens the cause.
“While women have come a long way… we still have a very, very long way to go,” she said, before concluding with the closing words of Ted Kennedy’s speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream will never die.”