Aileen Hernandez was very fond of telling this story about her first meeting as the first woman appointed by President Johnson to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC).
“I went to the meeting and when I was about to go in, I was told – You can’t go in there you’re wearing pants!”
Side note: Anyone who knew or even met Aileen would tell you that she was one of the most stylish and elegant women they had ever seen – so for anyone to say she was “inappropriately dressed” was more than absurd. But back to the story:
She argued with them and said – “But I’m one of the commissioners – I’m part of the meeting.”
“Doesn’t matter, “they said – “you can’t go in.”
She happened to be wearing one of those pants suits with a very long jacket. So, she went into the bathroom, took off the pants (now she was wearing a very short mini skirt/jacket) and went back to the reception desk. They let her in the meeting!
Aileen is one of those women many people have heard of but many people have not. She worked both in and out of the system.
Aileen Clarke Hernandez was born on May 23, 1926 to Jamaican parents. They were the first Black family to live in an all white neighborhood in Brooklyn . Her first memory of fighting racism was when her mother decided to take her to confront the white guy who had started a petition to get them out. Her mother was a fighter and Aileen became one too.
She liked to say she got her start this way: After going to Howard University (where one of her professors was Thurgood Marshall) she saw an ad that said : “want to work with people? long hours, little pay!” She responded: “I knew that was for me! “ And she went out to California and became an organizer for ILGWU. the rest as they say……
She was a founder and the second president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), succeeding Betty Friedan, She was the first woman on the EEOC. She helped organize the first statewide anti-death penalty rally in the state of California. She was on the ACLU national advisory committee for two decades. She was a founder of the National Women’s political caucus and Black Women Stirring the Waters and was a long time member of WILPF (just to name a few).
She didn’t always appear to be a militant – yet she was fiercely militant. She was a doer – she wanted results and she fought until she got them. And if she didn’t? She left to work in places where she could.
For instance. Aileen quit the EEOC a mere 18 months after her appointment because she felt they were moving too slowly in addressing the concerns of women.
Aileen became the second president of NOW because there were no other Black women in the leadership. And she fought for Black Women to embrace feminism and women’s liberation and for white women to confront their own racism. Aileen was intersectional long before anyone coined the term. But in 1979 she quit NOW because for the third time in elections they only had white women running.
She would work and work until she accomplished her goal. Aileen was the epitome of “don’t suffer fools lightly.” She didn’t believe in talking and talking and although she was extremely kind and empathetic she was also highly impatient with those who focused mostly on process.
Aileen loved working with young people and wanted to encourage them. When a group of mostly anarchist women wanted to have a “summer camp” to discuss feminism and related issues, they applied to WILPF for a hundred dollar donation. Aileen said: “This is what I’m talking about! Let’s give them a thousand!”
High school students loved to hear her talk. “She is really strong and tough! WOW.”
One young woman summed it up: She’s old school but she’s COOL!
She WAS Cool! We miss her.
Here’s a link to a speech she gave in 1982: https://archive.org/details/pacifica_radio_archives-AZ1669