Few Americans were aware of sex discrimination in the 1950s, and even now, not many have fully grasped its scope in society, both in our country and beyond, according to Sonia Pressman Fuentes ’50. Fuentes, a feminist, lawyer and author spoke at Myron Taylor Hall yesterday about her experience fighting against sex discrimination. She was the first female attorney for the Office of the General Counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and co-founder of the National Organization of Women.
In an interview with Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, Fuentes articulated the need for a “national organization for women’s rights just as the NAACP was for civil rights.” NOW became such an organization that enabled Fuentes to push for an aggressive program to enforce the ban on sex discrimination, which was only recently added to the list of discriminations prohibited in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Not only did this change affect pay but also all terms of conditions, advertising for employees, pre-employment inquiries and testing, job qualifications, hiring, firing, … medical leave and pensions.
“The effects of the amendment have spilled over to every area today, including abortion, divorce, alimony, child support, rape, jury service, appointments as administrators and executors of state, sentencing for crimes and admission to clubs, restaurants and bars,” Fuentes said. “Our spoken language has changed so that gender-neutral written language is in laws, textbooks, religious texts and publications. Women are also being included in clinical research studies.”
Women have faced challenges in both the workplace and at home for years and continue to do so today, Fuentes said. They are still subjected to sexual harassment in the office; and at home, women must accommodate both job responsibilities and familial duties. Even now, the gap between the salaries of men and women can largely be attributed to sex discrimination — in 2007, a woman made on average 78 cents to every dollar a man earned.
While women are well represented in law schools, business schools and college student bodies, female presence is less noticeable in leadership positions. Less than 20 percent of college presidents are women, while 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO’s are women and only one-third of law school faculty members are women and they tend to be in non-tenured positions.
Fuentes explained the global nature of women’s struggles as women constantly endure hardships exclusive to their gender, especially in developing countries. These trials include female genital mutilation, kidnappings, forced marriage, honor floggings, inadequate health care, female infanticide and abortions of female fetuses. They suffer from violence in the home and community from acid burning, dowry deaths, honor killings and bride burnings. One out of three women in the world are physically or sexually abused during their lifetime. In addition, women who serve in the armed forces are especially at risk for assault.
According to Jane Harman, a California congresswoman, “women serving in the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.”
Women are the victims of societal problems in much greater numbers than men, even in the United States. They represent over half of the people living in poverty and about half of the homeless. The epidemic of gender-based violence and sexual assault has spread to the point where we are in need of more safe services and shelters for battered women, Fuentes contended.
Victoria Burke law ’09 said, “I am currently in a feminist law and jurisprudence class and came to see this because [Fuentes] was a foundational member of the EEOC, and I work on comparable worth, which is pay equity. She did a good job showing the broad outline of the movement and inside the history since we don’t have sense for it at our age. It brought reality to our studies that would be theoretical otherwise.”
With a look to both the past and future, Fuentes said, “The changes over the last 40 years are breathtaking. I am hopeful about President Barack Obama, who has selected outstanding women for our government. People committed to working together can effect change.”