On February 22, the Center for Women’s History at New-York Historical Society unveiled Ladies’ Garments, Women’s Work, Women’s Activism. This special installation on our 4th Floor that highlights the work of women organizers in the garment trades and their role in shaping women’s movements across the 20th century. The exhibit offers brief glimpses into the lives of many remarkable women who organized with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and we will be telling their stories in greater detail on Women at the Center over the next few months. Today, we profile Aileen Clarke Hernandez, whose life of activism spanned the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement across ninety eventful years.
An Activist Upbringing
Aileen Blanche Clarke was born in Brooklyn on May 23, 1926. Her parents, both emigrants from Jamaica, introduced her to activism when she was young. Her father, Charles Henry Clarke, Sr., was a follower of Marcus Garvey and worked at times for Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Her mother, Ethel Louise Clarke, was a seamstress who was active in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) during Clarke’s childhood (like many West Indian immigrant women in the garment trades, she seems to have joined the union in the 1930s). The Clarkes made their home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which was, at the time, an all-white, middle class enclave overlooking New York harbor. One of Clarke’s earliest memories, as she often recalled, was marching with her mother to the home of a man who had started a petition to push the Clarkes out of Bay Ridge. Ethel Clarke informed the man of her family’s right to live where they pleased with her daughter at her side, and then simply turned and left. Aileen Clarke graduated from Bay Ridge High School, as salutatorian, in 1943.
Aileen Clarke earned a scholarship to Howard University in Washington D.C., arriving at a moment when legions of future civil rights activists were studying there. She joined the campus chapter of the NAACP and protested segregation at local businesses alongside Pauli Murray, then a law student nearly 16 years her senior who became a lifelong friend. Like her friend, Clarke experienced sexism — what Murray famously termed “Jane Crow” — at Howard; in her first political science class, the professor peered down at her (the only woman in the class) from the lectern and suggested that anyone unprepared for the course might fare better in home economics. Clarke stayed put. As she later told the documentarians at Makers (see the video above), if she had left, “my mother would never have forgiven me.” Clarke graduate from Howard with a double major in political science and sociology in 1947.
“My Best Job in the World”: Organizing with the ILGWU
Back at home in New York City after graduation — and a bout of tuberculosis — Clarke started a master’s degree at New York University. Just a few credits shy of graduation but bored with academic life, she saw an ad for an opportunity that offered, by its own admission, low pay but a lot of satisfaction and the chance to make a difference in the world. “They’re talking to me,” Clarke recalled thinking. The offer was from the ILGWU, whose president, David Dubinsky, had just created a new training institute to recruit activist college students and recent graduates to work in the labor movement. As Clarke later told The History Makers, Dubinsky saw that “the employers were hiring people who were technologists in those days, to do time and motion studies on how you could do more work for less money in the garment industry, so he figured he had to get some people who could at least compete in some ways with those guys” to work for his union. Clarke applied, and was one of four women admitted to the inaugural class of thirty-two in 1951.
The course was “partly academic” and “partly technical.” On the “academic” side, they learned about the ILGWU’s history: how the union had challenged sweatshop conditions through organizing and legislation, and how the ILGWU had pioneered social benefits for its workers beyond the factories. Hernandez was particularly impressed with the union’s health and education programs, both the first of their kind in the nation. As discussed in Ladies Garments, Women’s Work, Women’s Activism, the ILGWU founded the first-ever Union Health Center in New York in 1914 to provide medical benefits for workers and their families. By the time Clarke began her training, the union was a leader in the fight against tuberculosis, from which she herself had recently recovered.
The union’s education division offered, among many opportunities, citizenship classes for immigrant workers. A child of immigrants herself, Clarke told The History Makers, “I loved the fact that we could do training and to do teaching” and that she “got to use my political science on the citizenship programs.” Later, as an organizer and director of the union’s education division in Los Angeles, she loved “helping people become citizens of the United States … and helping people become political to understand … the way you made a difference in the United States was to get involved.” When Clarke’s parents, who largely supported her decision to leave NYU for the ILGWU, asked “what are you gonna do with all the college that you’ve gone through?” Clarke replied that “it really did give me an opportunity to use my skills in ways that I probably would’ve never used in as a political scientist.” As she put it in her History Makers interview “I saw politics in the practical sense” with the ILGWU.
The “practical” politics Clarke practiced at the ILGWU utilized the skills provided by the “technical” side of her training. “How do you run a picket line, how do you do leaflets, if you’re going to do leafleting? How do you get to an employer? How do you get to workers?” These were the questions Clarke and her fellow trainees were taught to answer. As she explained in her interview with The History Makers, “I think the average person has no idea that there’s strategy, I mean actually, you know, rehearsed strategy that goes on behind the scenes.” As Clarke remembered, the second half of the ILGWU’s training institute consisted primarily of fieldwork: “We worked in teams and we did all of those kinds of things that were necessary, and it really gave you a sense of how important it was to do that work … We actually went on, on picket lines and ran picket lines during that period of time, and actually organized shops while we were doing it.”
When the Institute ended, Clarke took a position with the ILGWU in Los Angeles, where she met and briefly married Richard Hernandez, a fellow unionist (they wed in 1957 and divorced in 1961). She rose through the ranks of the union’s education department, eventually becoming the education and public relations director for the ILGWU’s entire West Coast Division. Clarke was good at her job and loved the work; as she later told The History Makers, “that was my best job in the world … it fit me very well.”
Her love of organizing did not blind her, however, to discrimination within the ILGWU and the wider labor movement. As she explained in interviews with both Makers and The History Makers, the union’s membership was 85% female, but the leadership was entirely male. Male garment workers tended to work in specific positions with the highest pay; women workers, even those doing the same or similar work, made less. Parity — equal pay for equal work — became a lifelong organizing goal for Clarke (known by this time by her married name, Hernandez). She also observed racism within the wider labor movement, particularly in the construction trades, where white unionists resisted efforts to open union apprenticeships to Black and Hispanic workers.
Hernandez worked to challenge these inequities from within the ILGWU during the 1950s, but she left the union in 1961, after eleven years. She had good reason: ILGWU staff members had begun organizing themselves to ask the union for better pay (the promise of low pay but high satisfaction had begun to wear thin for many employees), but the union had refused to bargain with them. When she was offered job in California’s new Fair Employment Practices Commission, she took it. She moved on with an impressive arsenal of organizing skills and experience. “I thank the ILGWU,” she told The History Makers, “for a lot of what happened to me later on in my life.”
From the EEOC to NOW and Beyond
Aileen Clarke Hernandez passed away on February 13, 2017, at the age of 90. Most obituaries and tributes devoted, at most, a paragraph to her time in the ILGWU, because her work afterward rocketed her from the garment factories and union halls of Los Angeles to the national stage. In 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson named her to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, or EEOC, which was created to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the workplace. She was the only woman appointed, of five inaugural members, and while she was eager to see racial equality enforced on the job, she became increasingly frustrated with the Commission’s unwillingness to take gender discrimination seriously. Even media coverage of the Commission reproduced workplace sexism; a Jet magazine cover described Hernandez as an “aide” to Commission chair Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., not his voting equal on the five-member panel.
Hernandez left the EEOC after 18 months. In 1966, she joined the newly-formed National Organization for Women (NOW) as a vice-president, and she became the organization’s president in 1970. One of her first actions as president was testifying in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the United States Senate in May of 1970. “Gentlemen, women are enraged,” Hernandez told the Senators, as reported in the New York Times. “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.” That August, Hernandez and NOW organized a national Women’s Strike for Equality, which marked the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment by declaring “Women do not yet have the full freedom and equal status that is their birthright as human beings.” Thousands of marchers paraded in New York City and around the country, carrying signs that articulated demands for equality at home and on the job.
As she did at the ILGWU and the EEOC, Hernandez kept a critical eye on NOW’s organizational blind spots. She urged the organization to focus its energies on “the problems of the mass woman” rather than “the professional,” as the Washington Post reported in her obituary. Hernandez described her target audience, as NOW president, as:
“the women who are trapped in menial jobs, the woman who aspires to become a nurse but never a doctor, an elementary school-teacher but never a professor. The low-income woman isn’t going to run to join NOW, but she’s going to relate to our program because she has known for a long time the problems of combining a family with a job.”
She worried particularly that NOW was not reaching Black and Latina women. When she stepped down as NOW president in 1971, it was to focus her energies on the struggles of women of color. She made her home in San Francisco, where she ran a consulting business and helped to found and lead numerous organizations, including the National Women’s Political Caucus, Black Women Organized for Action in San Francisco, Black Women Stirring the Waters, and the California Women’s Agenda. Her personal papers are archived in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, alongside those of many legendary women leaders and activists across the 19th and 20th centuries.
A Life and Legacy of Organizing
When Aileen Clarke Hernandez passed away in 2017, tributes appeared around the country. Gloria Steinem recalled her ability to hold together diverse coalitions of activists in the New York Times. NOW, the ACLU, and the Veteran Feminists of America all posted messages saluting her leadership. In her hometown newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, journalists, politicians, and pastors all sang her praises. All of these remembrances celebrated Hernandez’s savvy as an organizer: her ability to bring people together in the service of immediate goals and long-running campaigns for equality. As Hernandez herself told her History Makers interviewer, she honed these organizing skills by training and working with the ILGWU. When she left the union in 1961, she carried what she had learned forward into a life of activism and leadership in struggles for racial, gender, and economic justice.
— Nick Juravich, Center for Women’s History
Ladies’ Garments, Women’s Work, Women’s Activism is on view on the 4th floor of New-York Historical Society through July 21, 2019.
**The author thanks The History Makers, the nation’s largest African American video oral history collection, for collecting and transcribing extensive interviews with Aileen Clarke Hernandez. As noted in this piece, her remembrances of working for the ILGWU are preserved in their remarkable online archive.
Top image credit: ILGWU sportswear strike, Los Angeles, 1941. Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University, via Flickr. Aileen Clarke Hernandez spent eleven years organizing with the ILGWU in Los Angeles.