Aileen Clarke Hernandez


A Pioneer for Women and Civil Rights

Makers – Published 2014

I was always told when I was growing up that I had choices, even when really I didn’t have a whole lot of them at the time. That it was what I did that would make a difference in my life.

Our family turned out to be the only African-American family in the community. At one point in time they were passing a petition around to get our family out of there because they didn’t want black people to be in the neighborhood. My mother took me by the hand and walked me over to the house of the man who had started the petition. And she gave him a lecture about our family and why we were there and all the rest, and simply turned and went out. I learned something that day, although I was very little at that stage.

I arrive at my first political science class – the teacher looks down at me and then he says, “If you are not prepared to do all of the work that we’re talking about, I would suggest that you leave now and sign up for home economics.” And I look around and for the first time I discover I’m the only girl in the room. I would not move because I knew my mother would never forgive me if I did.

I did very well in college and I saw an ad and it said – would you like a job that doesn’t pay a lot of money but gives lots of satisfaction to you in terms of what you’re doing in this society. I said they’re talking to me. It turns out to be the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. I went to California and [was] doing work – organizing.

The status of the women in the union was very simple – they did certain kinds of jobs and the men did the other jobs. And it turned out that the jobs that the women did got paid less and the ones that the men did got paid more. Women were beginning to push back about whether or not they’d had a role in the society that needed to be addressed as well. And laws were being passed.

President Kennedy today signed a bill making it illegal to pay a woman less than a man for the same job.

 It was a huge big deal. Discrimination against women is now to be illegal.

Stewardesses filed a complaint of discrimination. They couldn’t be married and stay on the airlines. They couldn’t gain any weight. When they were no longer beautiful in the eyes of the people, they were gone. Women started filing in large numbers. Newspapers had ads – Help Wanted Male – Help Wanted Female and we needed to do something about it. Some of our commissioners were not taking action because essentially they were dealing with the race issues that they were familiar with. They were not familiar with the discrimination against women. It was totally frustrating.

So they go up to Betty Friedan’s room and they agreed that the women need to rise up and say something or nothing is going to occur. And the group grew a little bit. It started with about five at lunch, it got to 15 or so in the evening and there was agreement that in October they would have a National Conference and create a new organization.

Betty Friedan came up with the name, National Organization for Women. The NOW people asked me to join – and so I joined. It was a revolution. It was essentially a major revolution for the country that was very similar to the whole issues around the civil rights revolution that took place earlier in the game.