It’s possible to see the similarities between different groups’ fights for equality and try to fight for multiple groups. Several role models who did just that have been covered in this blog series. At a certain point, even the most dedicated activists may realize that their attention is best focused where it is most appreciated. Aileen Clarke Hernandez tried to fight for the rights of many, even when social racism belittled her attempts.
Hernandez was born on May 23, 1926, in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents, Ethel Louise Hall and Charles Henry Clarke, Sr., were immigrants from Jamaica. Their family – the parents, two sons, and Hernandez – were the only black family in their neighborhood. The family survived years of racism, but they didn’t simply accept their treatment. Clarke worked on and off for the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the 1920s. Hall was a seamstress and joined the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) in the 1930s. Her parents taught all their children to take care of all household tasks and to value education without gender differences.
Hernandez loved learning from an early age. She graduated from high school in 1943 as salutatorian and earned a scholarship to Howard University. Often she was the only woman in political science classes and only one of a few women in sociology, yet despite both direct and indirect attacks on her being in class, she continued and earned high marks. In 1947, Hernandez graduated magna cum laude with a double major in political science and sociology. She immediately moved back to NYC and enrolled in a graduate program at New York University.
Bored with graduate school, Hernandez looked for something else. In 1951 she was accepted into an ILGWU program that was part education and part activism. This was a return to her mother’s work with the same union that fought for working women’s rights. Later she served as Education and Public Relations Director for the Pacific Coast Region of the ILGWU. Hernandez met her husband while working for the ILGWU, and the couple married in 1957 only to divorce in 1961. While doing all of this, she graduated summa cum laude with a master of science degree in government from California State University at Los Angeles in 1959.
That same year, she left the ILGWU because of sexism and racism. Even though 89% of the union was female, the overwhelmingly male leadership refused to support the majority of the membership’s call for equal pay for equal work. And among the construction trades, the white leadership opposed opening up apprenticeships to Black and Hispanic workers.
Hernandez’s work had captured statewide and national attention. From 1962-63, Hernandez was the Deputy Chief of the California Division of Fair Employment Practices. In 1964, Hernandez served as Commissioner of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Even though this Presidential commission was supposed to investigate inequalities in the job force, Hernandez was the only woman.
Hernandez stepped up when the National Organization for Women was founded in 1966 and became their first vice president. In 1970, she became NOW’s president and helped lead their Women’s Strike for Equality, which gained national attention that year. The Strike marked the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution by organizing 50,000 women marching through the streets of New York City carrying signs and chanting for equality rights. She was also called to speak before a congressional subcommittee on the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. In 1971, she chaired the committee that founded the National Women’s Political Caucus.
While she was praised for her work in NOW, she discovered that many of the racist beliefs that were part of American society were right there within NOW members. While Hernandez left a position of leadership in NOW in 1971, she continued to be a member until 1979, when she became disillusioned by the group’s outreach to minority groups. She had tried to help NOW get more members with the creation of their Minority Women’s Task Force in 1972.
Hernandez worked to found and lead many other women’s organizations throughout her lifetime. In 1973, she founded the Black Women Organized for Action. She also founded Black Women Stirring the Waters, a San Francisco Bay Area discussion group that continues today. Hernandez chaired the California Women’s Agenda, an alliance of over 600 organizations.
Between 1967 and 1972, she moved back to San Francisco and founded Hernandez and Associates, which consulted about fair employment laws, particularly but not limited to those related to sexual and racial discrimination. In 1973 she and nine other Black women formed Sapphire Publishing Company, which was designed to bring Black women’s voices into print.
Hernandez continued to speak out, write, and lecture about human rights throughout her life. In 1979, Hernandez joined the board of the Ms. Foundation and worked with them until 1985. In 1993, she taught as the Tish Sommers Lecturer at the Institute for Health and Aging of the University of California, San Francisco. In 1996 she was the Regents Scholar in Residence at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 2016, Hernandez spoke at the National NOW Conference.
While the numerous awards Hernandez was given for her lifetime of human rights activism could fill a full page of text, here are some highlights. In 1961, the Community Relationships Conference of Southern California named her Women of the Year. In 1968, Howard University honored her for Distinguished Postgraduate Achievement in the fields of Labor and Public Service. In 1969, The San Francisco Examiner named Hernandez among the Ten Most Distinguished Women of the San Francisco Bay Area. She was given the Bicentennial Award in 1976 from the Trinity Baptist Church of San Mateo County. In 1984, the Friends of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women honored her. In 1989, the Northern California American Civil Liberties Foundation gave her the Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award. In 2005, she was one of 1000 women from around the world nominated for their collective human rights work by the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2006, she was among the honorees of the National Women's History Project.
Hernandez was struck down by dementia on February 13, 2017, in Tustin, California. Her continuous work to include all people in every organization she ever worked with should inspire us all to do the same.