Biography of Aileen Hernandez

The Work of a Lifelong Activist

Aileen Hernandez 2013
Aileen Hernandez 2013. Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images

Aileen Hernandez was a lifelong activist for civil rights and women’s rights. She was one of the founding officers of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966.

Dates: May 23, 1926 – February 13, 2017

Personal Roots

Aileen Clarke Hernandez, whose parents were Jamaican, was raised in Brooklyn, New York. Her mother, Ethel Louise Hall Clarke, was a homemaker who worked as a seamstress and traded domestic work for physician's services. Her father, Charles Henry Clarke Sr., was a brushmaker. School experiences taught her that she was supposed to be "nice" and submissive, and she early determined not to submit.

Aileen Clarke studied political science and sociology at Howard University in Washington D.C., graduating in 1947. It was there she began to work as an activist to fight against racism and sexism, working with the NAACP and in politics. She later moved to California and received a master’s degree from California State University at Los Angeles. She has traveled widely in the course of her work for human rights and liberty.

Equal Opportunities

During the 1960s, Aileen Hernandez was the only woman appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She resigned from the EEOC because of frustration with the agency’s inability or refusal to actually enforce laws against sex discrimination. She started her own consulting firm, which works with government, corporate, and nonprofit organizations.

Working with NOW

While women's equality was getting more government attention, activists discussed the need for a private women’s rights organization. In 1966, a group of pioneering feminists founded NOW. Aileen Hernandez was elected NOW’s first Executive Vice-President. In 1970, she became the second national president of NOW, after Betty Friedan.

While Aileen Hernandez led the organization, NOW worked on behalf of women in the workplace to gain equal pay and better handling of discrimination complaints. NOW activists demonstrated in several states, threatened to sue the U.S. Secretary of Labor and organized the Women’s Strike for Equality.

When the president of NOW endorsed a candidate slate in 1979 which did not include any people of color in major positions, Hernandez broke with the organization, writing an open letter to feminists to express her critique of the organization for putting such priority on issues like the Equal Rights Amendment that issues of race and class were ignored.

"I have become increasingly distressed by the growing alienation of minority women who have joined feminist organizations like NOW. 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."

Other Organizations

Aileen Hernandez was a leader on multiple political issues, including housing, the environment, labor, education and health care. She co-founded Black Women Organized for Action in 1973. She has also worked with Black Women Stirring the Waters, the California Women’s Agenda, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the California Division of Fair Employment Practices.  

Aileen Hernandez won multiple awards for her humanitarian efforts. In 2005, she was part of a group of 1,000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Hernandez died in February 2017. 

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Napikoski, Linda. "Biography of Aileen Hernandez." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Napikoski, Linda. (2021, February 16). Biography of Aileen Hernandez. Retrieved from Napikoski, Linda. "Biography of Aileen Hernandez." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).