The author of Eat First talks about the writing of her memoir, the difficulties involved, her mentors, the evolution of women’s rights, her work as an attorney at the NLRB, founder of NOW, the impact of Hitler and the Third Reich on her family and on civilization in general, sexual and racial equality, major issues affecting people in the 21st century and some of her current work.
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena Ball: Tell me about the writing of Eat First. Have you always wanted to write your memoir?
Sonia Pressman Fuentes: I’ve always wanted to write but didn’t consider it seriously before I retired as it is lonesome, difficult work and I didn’t think I had the self-discipline to do it. While I always wanted to write, I thought not of a memoir but of non-fiction pieces about things I’d experienced myself. I also was always interested in writing both serious and humorous pieces, and my book contains both types of writing. Researching, writing and editing the book took me 5 1/2 years.
MB: What is the hardest thing about writing a memoir?
SPF: Much of it is hard–I don’t know which is the hardest. It is hard to work by yourself alone when your contemporaries who are retired are taking vacations, taking college courses, or just relaxing. It is hard to nail down facts through research. It is hard to keep writing over a period of years when writing was not your initial profession and you don’t know whether you have any ability as a writer and think that you may be spending years of your life on a book that may never be published. It is hard to get hit with questions like, “You’re writing a memoir? Who are you to write a memoir?” It is hard to market and promote your book. It is hard (for me, it was impossible) to find an agent and a traditional publisher. Fortunately, I was retired and did not need to earn a living while I was writing.
For someone younger, it would also be hard to survive financially while writing.
MB: Is this your first piece of creative writing, or have you written other things?
SPF: I’ve been writing all my life. I’m someone who doesn’t believe an experience is real until I write it down. But except for a poem of mine that was published in the Miami (Florida) Herald when I was 10 years old and my story about taking the Florida Bar Exam (a chapter in my memoir) that was published in the DC Bar Journal in 1967, my material wasn’t published, and I never made a great effort to get it published.
I also wrote and delivered many speeches, initially in connection with my work as the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and then as a public speaker for myself. Many of the pieces I wrote found their way into my memoir, but I worked on them continuously polishing them and revising them when I was doing the memoir.
MB: Who were/are your most important mentors/role models?
SPF: The only mentor I can think of was a woman named Ethel Kooperman. She and her husband, Joe, had a husband-and-wife law office in Ellenville, New York, and they represented my parents in real estate investments. One summer, while attending law school, I worked as a secretary for them. So I had the role model of a woman attorney, which is what I later became.
MB: Your book chronicles some of the struggles of a woman growing up in the 40s and 50s, and would mirror many of the experiences of your colleagues and fellow women. Do you think that this is a different world for women today than the one in which you grew up in and wrote about, or are there still battles to be won?
SPF: Of course, it is a different world today than the world I grew up in, and the men and women who fought for women’s rights contributed to making it so. Girls and women today have opportunities for education and careers that were largely closed to women in my day. On the other hand, I’m sure they face new problems–and also face some of the same problems we had. The difficulty of having a career and being a wife and mother remain. Violence against women remains a serious problem. There are battered women who need shelters and all kinds of assistance. Women need health insurance and contraceptive prescriptions need to be included in such health insurance. Proper sex education for boys and girls in schools is not a fact of American life. The conditions of women in prison need to be addressed as does trafficking in girls and women. Women in developing countries need all the help we can give them. A recent report issued by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimated that a woman is raped every two hours in Pakistan, but that most sexual assaults go unreported because of the social stigma attached to such charges and the difficulty in proving them. Female genital mutilation continues. There is no dearth of problems to be addressed.
MB: Tell me about some of your previous jobs – first woman attorney in the general counsel’s office of EEOC, attorney at the NLRB and founder of NOW. In what way do you feel organizations like this are critical for women. In what ways if any do you find them limited in what they can do?
SPF: I’ve had a good number of jobs. I was always looking for a more challenging job until I came to the EEOC, which I think is the position I was meant to hold. But I also changed jobs for other reasons, such as wanting to live in a different
area or because it was time to leave the job I was on for one reason or another and move on to something else. On a number of jobs, I quit after 1-3 days because I felt it was not right for me. I worked as a retail sales person, secretary, switchboard operator, law clerk, editorial assistant, and lawyer and executive. I had jobs with multinational corporations (GTE and TRW) and a number of federal agencies: the Department of Justice, the NLRB, the EEOC and HUD, both at their headquarters and in their field offices. I don’t feel any of these organizations are “critical for women.” What I believe is critical for women is to have options on what they want to do with their lives.
It is also critical for women who want to achieve certain goals to band together in organizations, like NOW and other organizations. There is strength in numbers–and also comfort and sharing. I don’t believe any of us who founded NOW had any idea of the changes in this country and the world that would result from our efforts. We were a group of men and women who were frustrated by the limitations our society placed on women and we banded together to do something about it.
In my career, every organization placed limitations on what its women employees could do. I trust those are far fewer today.
MB: What about the impact of WW2 which was so powerful in shaping your family’s destiny. Is there some kind of innate human need to create scapegoats?
SPF: WW2 wasn’t powerful in shaping my family’s destiny. Hitler and the Third Reich were powerful in shaping my family’s destiny. And powerful only in the sense that we had to leave our home, business, and country (where my parents had lived for twenty years) at a time when my parents were about forty years old and they had to strike out for a new country and a new life. And we were among the lucky ones. We escaped in time. Six million other Jews were murdered–along, of course, with millions of other people.
As far as scapegoats, I have just come from spending three weeks studying Jewish history at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. One of our professors discussed the fact that the scapegoat theory doesn’t explain Hitler’s determination to wipe the Jews off the face of this planet. Why the Jews? Why not some other
group? This is a difficult and complicated question, and I am not an expert on this subject. I do, of course, oppose discrimination against any person because of the group to which he or she belongs and I have devoted my life to fighting it.
MB: In Iain Pears’ recent novel, The Dream of Scipio, one of the characters says that (paraphrased) the concept of civilization will never be the same after WW2. Whatever achievement or benefits that are brought to mankind will be tempered by the collaborative scale of annihilation during the Holocaust. Do you agree with this?
SPF: One of the things we talked about during my Jewish history courses at Skidmore was the fact that while the Holocaust was unique in that Hitler’s plan was to eliminate every Jew in the world whereas other murderous campaigns against groups did not have the intent of eliminating every member of the group involved in the world, there have certainly been other countries and cases where millions of innocent people have been killed both before and after the Holocaust. Each one of
these situations should affect us.
MB: Do you think that, as a society, we are moving forward (in a positive direction) with respect to both racial and sexual equality?
SPF: I like to think so but these things don’t necessarily move in a straight line. Also, at the Skidmore conference, I learned that Reform Judaism is becoming more conservative. One aspect of this that concerned me was that Reform rabbis are less open to performing weddings between a Jew and a non-Jew than they were in the past. I think that is moving backwards.
MB: In the book you mention that “sex is an issue more sensitive than race”. Can you talk a bit more than that.
SPF: What I meant and might have said was that sex discrimination is a more difficult and sensitive issue than race discrimination. The reason is that relations between men and women, and the rights of men and women touch each of us in personal ways. One’s sexual identity as a man or woman is central to each of us. While people may have strong views on race relations, I do not believe they are as central to one’s life as sexual identity.
MB: What do you think that the major issues of the 21st century will be for humanity?
SPF: I don’t really know the answer to this any more than anyone else does. I am a lawyer, a feminist, a writer, and a public speaker. This does not make me an expert on world affairs. Now that you’ve got me thinking about it, however, I would think the major issues would continue to be maintaining peace throughout the world, dealing with nuclear power, the relations of men and women to each other, raising a family while having a career, feeding the world’s population, preserving the environment, providing opportunities for everyone to reach his or her potential without invidious discrimination, and dealing with advancing technology.
MB: Is there another book in you? What can readers expect to see next.
SPF: I do not intend to write another book but I have written and published several articles since my memoir was published when I have experiences that move me. Thus, I have written articles recently on my trip to my parents’ birthplace in Poland last year and on the life of my Vietnamese manicurist.