Aileen Hernandez, one of the first African-American women to battle sex discrimination from both inside the government and in the top ranks of the women’s movement, died on Feb. 13 in Irvine, Calif. She was 90.
The cause was complications of dementia, her niece Annie Clarke said.
Ms. Hernandez had just succeeded Betty Friedan as president of the National Organization for Women in 1970 when she testified before a Senate subcommittee about the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, which would have guaranteed constitutional equality for women. Ms. Friedan, who had ignited the contemporary women’s movement with her book “The Feminine Mystique” (1963), had been NOW’s president since its founding in 1966.
“Gentlemen, women are enraged,” Ms. Hernandez told the packed Senate Caucus Room. “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.”
Two years later, Congress passed the E.R.A. But in 1982, it fell three state legislatures short of the 38 needed for ratification.
Ms. Hernandez was part of the NOW leadership that organized the “Women’s Strike for Equality” marches in New York City and around the country in August 1970, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women’s suffrage.
She was also chairwoman of a committee that led to the founding in 1971 of the National Women’s Political Caucus, dedicated to increasing political power for women. Among its early leaders were Shirley Chisholm, the New York Democratic congresswoman, and the writer Gloria Steinem.
“It was a spontaneous combustion of people from every state, and we didn’t necessarily know each other,” Ms. Steinem said in a phone interview, referring to the formation of the caucus. “It was unruly and fully in need of someone like Aileen. She knew Robert’s Rules of Order and was respected by everyone. She held it together.”
Ms. Hernandez often voiced frustration that black women did not embrace NOW as she had hoped they would. As the organization’s president from 1970 to 1971, she acknowledged that its membership was “predominantly white and middle class,” but she argued that “the black struggle and our struggle are the same revolution — the human revolution.”
Years later, in 1979, she lamented that NOW’s membership was still too white and that the organization had not raised “the question of racism.”
Terry O’Neill, the current president of NOW, said in a phone interview that the “reality is that white women have benefited so disproportionately from the women’s movement that by any measure — income, wealth and health — women of color lag behind white women in gaps that are increasing.”
Ms. Hernandez, she added, “would be distraught to see that.”
Aileen Clarke was born in Brooklyn on May 23, 1926, to Charles Henry Clarke Sr., a brush salesman, and the former Ethel Louise Hall, a seamstress. She recalled her mother taking her by the hand to the house of a man who had begun a petition to force the Clarkes from their all-white neighborhood.
“She gave him a lecture about our family, why we were there and all that, and simply turned and went out,” she said in an interview with Makers, an online archive of interviews with trailblazing women.
She graduated from Bay Ridge High School in Brooklyn and attended Howard University in Washington. She was driven to activism, she later said, after she and her father arrived in Washington by train and asked how to get to Howard from the station. They were told to find a black cab.
“We were New Yorkers and thought the color of the cab was black,” Ms. Hernandez told Makers. “But that wasn’t the issue. If you wanted to go to Howard University, no taxi driver who was white was going to take you.”
She graduated from Howard with a degree in political science and had begun graduate studies at New York University when she learned that the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union was seeking someone interested in a job that would involve social issues. It promised psychic rewards but not much salary.
“They were talking to me,” Ms. Hernandez told KQED, a TV station in Los Angeles.
She headed to Los Angeles in 1951 for a year of training, which led to a decade of work with the union. She became an organizer and the education and public relations director of the union’s West Coast division.
While working there, she also received a degree in government from California State University, Los Angeles. But though she was inspired by the occasional presence of Eleanor Roosevelt at labor meetings, Ms. Hernandez found that the union was not treating its female workers fairly.
“They did certain jobs and the men did other jobs,” she told Makers, “and the jobs the women did got paid less.”
After leaving the union to help in the re-election campaign of Alan Cranston, the state comptroller (and later a longtime Democratic United States senator from California), she joined the California State Division of Fair Employment Practices as assistant chief.
In 1965, she was the only woman among the five commissioners named by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the inaugural Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which was authorized under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But exasperated with the slow pace at which the commission was addressing sex-discrimination cases, she left after 18 months.
One case involved whether Northwest Airlines had violated federal law by firing a flight attendant who had married. A federal judge enjoined the commission from releasing any discrimination ruling, arguing that Ms. Hernandez had voted in the case after announcing that she would join NOW as executive vice president. Her action, the court found, represented a conflict of interest.
Ms. Hernandez also ran a consulting firm that dealt with sexual and racial discrimination and was a founder of the groups Black Women Organized for Political Action and Black Women Stirring the Waters.
No immediate family members survive. Her marriage to Alfonso Hernandez, a garment cutter, ended in divorce.
Ms. Hernandez could be a fiery speaker. In a 1982 speech, she said: “I believe very firmly that black women are like no other women in the world. And one of the things that makes us so different is that we have managed to survive in one of the most hostile worlds there ever was, and we survive in that world with the understanding that racism and sexism are rampant.”
Ms. Hernandez, Ms. Steinem said, “was warm and funny and elegant, but always authentic and authoritative at the same time.”