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Aileen Hernandez speaks onstage during the PBS Portion- Day 2 of the 2013 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)


Pioneering women’s rights and civil rights activist Aileen Hernandez dies at 90

March 1, 2017

Aileen Hernandez, the first woman appointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Council, co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and its second president, and the vice chairperson of the ACLU’s National Advisory Council for more than two decades, died on February 13th at the age of 90.

Hernandez was an iconic pioneer in both the racial justice and women’s rights movements, known for her eloquence and steely passion. After graduating from Howard University, with a degree in political science, she began her career as a labor organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in what was then a still highly segregated country. She was quickly noticed by President Lyndon Johnson, who asked her to work as a commissioner on the newly established Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1964. When, two years later, the EEOC refused to respond to claims of sexual discrimination she duly resigned.

In 1970 Hernandez took over from Betty Friedan — author of the groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique — as president of NOW, organizing the Women’s Strike for Equality and testifying before a Senate subcommittee about the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, which would have guaranteed constitutional equality for women. Speaking to the packed Senate Caucus room Hernandez said, “Gentlemen, women are enraged. We are dedicated, and we mean to become first-class citizens in this country. We really do not feel that these hearings are necessary. The Congress could and should vote immediately.” Although Congress passed the E.R.A. two years later, in 1982 it fell short of the state legislature support required for its ratification.

Hernandez lamented the fact that far fewer black women embraced NOW than she had hoped, and years into her presidency she criticized the organization, which continued to have a majority white membership, for failing to properly raise the “question of racism.”

As well as running her own consulting firm, which addressed sexual and racial discrimination, she was also a coordinator of Black Women Stirring the Waters and chair of the California Women’s Agenda, a state action alliance of more than 600 organizations.

Speaking to The New York Times, Gloria Steinem described Hernandez as “warm and funny and elegant, but always authentic and authoritative at the same time.” Below, watch an interview she gave to MAKERS back in 2014 in which she discusses her life as an activist and rights advocate.

Read the full story at The New York Times.