Hernandez, Aileen Clarke 1926–
Aileen Clarke Hernandez 1926–
Urban consultant, women’s and labor rights organizer
As a long-time political organizer and urban consultant, Aileen Hernandez has devoted her career and her life to fighting racist and sexist discrimination wherever she has found it and to bringing people together in the struggle. But, in October of 1979, even Hernandez—the first female member of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) and the second president of the National Organization for Women (NOW)—was forced to defer to the dark forces of division.
“I have become increasingly distressed by the growing alienation of minority women who have joined feminist organizations like NOW,” Hernandez wrote in an open letter to her sisters in the women’s movement.“They are truly the ‘women in the middle,’ isolated within their minority communities because of their espousal of the feminist cause and isolated in the feminist movement because they insist on attention to issues which impact heavily on minorities.”
One motivation for the letter was then-president of NOW Eleanor Smeal’s endorsement of a candidate slate, which pointedly omitted women of color from national leadership positions. Another was NOW’s continuing strategy which, Hernandez wrote,“indoctrinated” minority women on why they should support the then-pending Equal Rights Amendment instead of responding to the issues of race and class that consumed minorities in their everyday lives. That October of 1979 letter meant a painful break with the same NOW that Hernandez had helped found 13 years before. Instead, she allied herself with the Women’s Caucus of the Black American Political Association of California and with its resolution, passed that same month, urging black NOW members to return their membership cards “and not to rejoin until NOW takes meaningful action to eliminate racism.”
The resolution had little effect and white feminists failed to recognize or actively work on black feminists’ racial concerns.“It has been bad for a long period of time,” Hernandez acknowledged in a recent 1996 interview.“[NOW] has some policies that provide that there specifically be a certain percentage of women of color on the national board; and they’re now electing [officers] at large,” which increases minority representation. “But it’s not very much better. The difference is, there are
Born May 23, 1926, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Charles Henry, Sr. (an artists brushmaker) and Ethel Louise Hall (a seamstress) Clarke; married Alfonso Hernandez, 1947; divorced, 1951. Education: Howard University, B.A., 1947; California State University-Los Angeles, M.S. Attended New York University and University of Oslo, Norway.
International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Los Angeles, CA, 1951-60; U.S. State Department, specialist in labor education, 1960; California Division of Fair Employment Practices, 1962-65; U.S. Equal Employment Commission, commissioner, 1965-66; San Francisco State University, lecturer 1968-69; University of California at Berkeley, instructor, 1978; founder and president, Hernandez & Associates, 1967—. National Organization for Women, western vice president, 1967-70; president, 1970-71.
Selected awards: Named Woman of the Year, Community Relations Conference of Southern California, 1961; Howard University Distinguished Postgraduate Achievement in Labor and Public Service, 1968; named one of the Ten Most Distinguished Women in the San Francisco Bay Area by the San Francisco Examiner, 1969; honoree of the National Urban Coalition for distinguished service to urban communities, 1985; Regents Scholar in Residence, University of California, Santa Barbara; recipient, Silver Spur Award from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, 1995; Eleanor Roosevelt Award from Democratic Women’s Forum in California, 1996.
Addresses: Office—c/o Hernandez & Associates, 818 47th Ave., San Francisco, CA 94121.
women-of-color organizations all over the place.” Certainly, the credit for that in some measure belongs to women like Hernandez, who since feminism’s rebirth in the early 1960s have called for activists and others to regard discrimination in employment, housing, health, and all other areas as racist and sexist, and to remember that neither evil can be fought separately or alone.
Born May 23, 1926, in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of Charles Henry Clarke Sr., an artists brush-maker, and his wife, Ethel Louise Hall Clarke, a home-maker, Hernandez was not very old before she personally felt the impact of racism and sexism. But those lessons occurred only outside her home. According to Hernandez, her childhood was happy despite the Depression, which made life “difficult” and forced her Jamaican immigrant parents to scrape together what they could to feed Aileen and her two brothers. Hernandez’s mother brought money in by bartering her cleaning services for a doctor’s services and by working as a seamstress, an obvious influence on what her daughter would do later in life.
Hernandez happily remembered that her parents put no roadblocks on what their children, despite the racist tenor of the times, could achieve. But her parents could do only so much. In a profile in Urban West magazine, Hernandez recalled repeated admonitions at school to “act like a young lady,” to muzzle her aggressiveness and independence. This command came to the fore when Aileen graduated from elementary school. She had painstakingly hand-sewn her graduation dress and desperately coveted the school’s Golden Thimble Award for this skill. She planned to wear her beautiful dress proudly as class valedictorian and as the recipient of class medals in French and Latin. But, while she clearly deserved the sewing award, it went elsewhere. “Aileen,” the principal told her, “we want you to be a nice young lady and let us spread the prizes around.” Under pressure from her elders, the little girl submitted. At the same time, in her first political decision, the child resolved never to be submissive again.
Named salutatorian of her high school class, Hernandez went on to Howard University from 1943 to 1947, where, in the postwar years, she was drawn into politics and the NAACP, fighting the rigid segregation imposed on all black Americans of the period, even returning war heroes. “During the period right after the war ended,” Hernandez recalled, “when the vets came home, there was a lot of pressure and demonstrations against segregation in the City of Washington. The troops were segregated, and the vets coming to Howard under the GI Bill were obviously not going to tolerate that.”
The student from Brooklyn was hooked; politics would be her life. The summer after college graduation she studied comparative government in Oslo, Norway, then returned to Howard to begin studies for her master’s degree and to work as a research assistant for the same instructor who had once accused her—because of her gender—of being “in the wrong class.” Unfortunately, those graduate studies were interrupted; Hernandez suffered a bout with tuberculosis, which forced her to return home to rest. Once she recovered back in New York, she picked up her graduate studies at New York University. But then a second interruption followed, this one self-imposed. Hernandez had spotted a magazine ad with the appealing message: “Are you an oddball? Are you interested in social issues and interested in working in an atmosphere that gives you psychic awards but little money?” And that was how the graduate student found herself moving to California, to finish her master’s degree at the California State University at Los Angeles and to begin a year-long internship with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Institute. Hernandez was part of the wave of young, college-educated unionists brought in to counteract the rash of time-and-motion studies then in vogue in U.S. factories. It was a trend that then-ILGWU president David Dubinsky worried would result in engineers running the workplace.
Hernandez took a job with the West Coast division and remained with the union from 1951 to 1960, as an organizer and as the union’s assistant education director, and later as its education and public relations director. It was during this period that she met and married garment cutter Alfonso Hernandez. But the couple divorced in 1961. “My husband came from the Latin tradition which taught him to expect subservience from women,” she later told Urban West. “It just didn’t work.”
What did work, however, was her blossoming political career. After leaving the union to work for the campaign that made (subsequent U.S. Senator) Alan Cranston state comptroller, Hernandez turned down his offer of work in his office in favor of an appointment by then-Governor Edmund Brown to be assistant chief of the California Division of Fair Employment Practices, which was then beginning to enforce the state’s recently passed (1959) anti-discrimination law. In that job she attacked barriers for minorities head-on, setting up an advisory commission to challenge the employment tests widely used at the time. “We said a test was only useful if it was a test for specific things on the job,” Hernandez recalled. Under pressure from the commission and legal challenges, employers finally agreed to revise the tests and use other criteria for hiring.
Hernandez was getting noticed. In 1961 she was selected Woman of the Year by the Community Relations Conference of Southern California. Then in 1965 came an even bigger honor: her appointment by President Lyndon Johnson to the first U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Hernandez, the first female EEOC commissioner (and one of two minorities on the five-member board), combatted racial discrimination in construction unions, sex discrimination against stewardesses (whom airlines regularly dismissed if they married or had children), and sex discrimination again from the “protective” labor laws then in effect for women. Hernandez also emphasized the female part of the EEOC law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a provision that ironically had been a political fluke, included in the law to dissuade passage of its civil rights provision.
This emphasis propelled Hernandez right to the center of the burgeoning women’s rights movement. She was frequently asked to speak to the new state commissions on the status of women and to their annual Washington meeting. And she privately agreed with activist Pauli Murray’s public statements that the EEOC was weak and that what women really needed was an organization like the NAACP. “Behind the scenes, I was actively involved in getting women’s organizations protesting some of the things that were not happening at the commission,” Hernandez said in the interview. She was present for instance in June of 1966 when the state commissions tried to pass a resolution criticizing the federal commission—an action that was prohibited by federal rules.
The Feminist Mystique author Betty Friedan, Pauli Murray, and others reacted by founding NOW. Hernandez was feeling similar emotions. In November of 1966, after 18 months on the EEOC, she resigned. “I’d had enough. I’m basically an organizer and wanted to do some things that would get people organized around better enforcement of Title VII.” So she returned to California, declining NOW’s offer of a national vice-presidency, and instead hunted for a new direction.
Still, the women’s movement kept calling, and in 1967 Hernandez agreed to become NOW’s western regional vice president, at about the same time she founded her urban consulting firm, Aileen C. Hernandez Associates, in San Francisco. The logic for the firm was simple: Employers kept inviting her to lunch to chat about the outlook for anti-discrimination legislation, and, “Having gone to lunch six times in two weeks with the same people, I decided I had enough background and information that I might as well charge them for it.”
Hernandez remained NOW’s regional vice president until March of 1970 when she succeeded Betty Friedan as the organization’s second national president. Yet, though she was a dedicated feminist, she was also an African American, and the racial picture was changing. NOW had enjoyed significant support from minority women leaders in the years following its founding, but the Black Power and Women’s Liberation movements were beginning to siphon off younger and more radical women. Those movements were also organized on campuses, which NOW had never tackled.
“There were indeed some blacks who perceived NOW accurately to be largely white and female and middle class,” Hernandez said in the interview. “There were always black women and Hispanic women in NOW in those early days. That wasn’t true later on.” Hernandez herself felt differently. “As a black woman, I particularly think that it is important to be involved in women’s liberation, largely because black women are desperately needed in the total civil rights movement,” she said in a dialogue in Essence magazine. To Urban West, she said, “If black women did step back to allow their men a relative role of superiority, it would only offer the illusion of progress for the black man and result in retrogression for the black woman.”
There were other controversies and divisions as well—abortion, lesbianism, leftist politics in general, the Vietnam war. In 1971 Hernandez helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus to bring more women into political office and to openly fight for the issues, like abortion rights, that had split NOW. Leaving the NOW presidency in September of 1971, she still worked to reverse the lack of women of color in that organization, creating the Minority Women’s Task Force in 1972 and organizing a minority women’s survey. But the survey results were depressing: NOW had less than 10 percent minority participation, and those members overwhelmingly said they felt isolated, their personal concerns overlooked. These findings helped formulate the 1979 resolution with which Hernandez parted ways with many of her white colleagues in the women’s movement.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Hernandez continued to build her firm, employing four associates and, at times, as many as 30 staffers, depending on the project of the moment, whose budget might range as high as half a million dollars. “Critical issues in the urban environment” such as transportation, equal opportunity and housing were the firm’s focus, and clients included major corporations like the United Parcel Service and Standard Oil of California; nonprofit organizations such as the National Catholic Conference on Interracial Justice and the Ford Foundation; and government agencies like the Bay Area Rapid Transit District and the California Department of Health Services. One project, for instance, identified problems in the movement of goods and pedestrians in downtown San Francisco, suggesting low-cost transportation systems improvements. Another provided support to the Bay Area’s first female police officers. A third evaluated the nation’s first displaced homemakers’ center.
Hernandez’s political talents have also, over the years, put her in the forefront of a prodigious number of organizations. She is vice-chair of the National Urban Coalition; chair emerita of the trustees of a socially responsible investment group, Citizens Trust; she is also on the boards of the Pesticide Education Center, The Garden Project, Meilejohn Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Women Policy Studies, and the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights. She is president of the Board of the Center for the Common Good and an advisor to the Campaign to Abolish Poverty. She is also vice-chair of the National Advisory Council of the American Civil Liberties Union and a member of the Advisory Councils of the California Academy of Sciences, Leadership California and Alumnae Resources. She is also a life trustee of The Urban Institute, a member of the California Commission on Campaign Financing and the Center for Governmental Studies. And her interest in women’s rights has not flagged. She was a member of the Ms. Foundation for Women for ten years and formerly chaired the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on the Rights and Responsibilities of Women at what is now the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She has also been an honored invitee to the twentieth and twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations of NOW and is invited to the group’s thirtieth anniversary as well.
Today, Hernandez has trimmed the size of her consulting firm; and although in her seventies, she remains active and committed. Asked her opinion of the progress made on minority and feminist issues, she was cautiously optimistic. “I think it’s grown tremendously,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of stuff going on.” She mentioned a large “March to Fight the Right” in California that attracted large minority participation. Attacks against affirmative action have stirred particular interest, she said. “Part of [the problem] has to do with what I think is the lack of participation of people in the political arena. We wold not be at this stage if we had not all stayed home from the polls in 1994. We’ve got people in power elected with about 16 percent of the vote in the U.S., and I think part of the problem is to get people reenergized around the political process and finding candidates with more ethical approaches so people get more responsive to the power of the vote. After we spent all those years fighting to get it and dying to get it, it seems terrible to me that people are not using it. So I’m very interested in re-energizing people around the power of the political vote.”
Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1975, p. 1.
Ms., July-August, 1994, p. 56.
San Francisco Examiner, March 18, 1972.
Urban West, July-August 1970, p. 12.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a telephone interview with Aileen Hernandez, July 27,1996; Statement of Qualifications and Experience, a brochure from Aileen C. Hernandez Associates; and from an open letter from Aileen Hernandez to NOW members, October 1979.
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