Gerda Lerner, Women’s History Pioneer, 1920-2013

By: Dr. Linda Gordon, New York University, January 9, 2013

Photo Credit: NPR.org

Gerda Lerner, historian, writer, feminist activist and program builder, died January 2, 2013, In Madison, Wisconsin, at age 92.

Born Gerda Hedwig Kronstein to a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna, she was active in anti-Nazi protests while in secondary school.  When her father, Robert Kronstein, came to understand the Nazis’ plans to appropriate Jewish property and arrest Jews, he fled to Lichtenstein to develop a second business.  Gerda and her mother Ilona and sister Nora were arrested and held for six weeks; they were released only after Robert sold his Austrian assets to Gentiles for a pittance.  Gerda believed that her experiences as a Nazi resister and imprisoned teenager were the most formative influences of her life, undergirding her assertive, fighting spirit and her understanding of the virulent force of racism.

Immigrating to the US, she contracted a brief first marriage and divorce, and earned a living in working-class jobs, then in 1941 married Carl Lerner, a theater director and film editor.  They moved to Los Angeles where he worked in Hollywood and she worked with community social-justice groups.  Both were Communists at the time, and when Carl Lerner’s career was destroyed by the Hollywood blacklists, they returned to New York with their two children.  In the 1960s Gerda became one of the founding members of NOW.

At age 38 Gerda enrolled in college and then graduate school at Columbia. Defying warnings and belittlement from those who believed she should choose a more conventional and “high status” topic, Gerda wrote a PhD dissertation about women—the abolitionist Grimke sisters.   In 1968 she began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College where she developed an MA program in women’s history, the first in the US.  Twelve years later she won a professorship at the University of Wisconsin, over significant opposition, where she developed a PhD program in women’s history.

Two related intellectual and personal understandings marked Gerda Lerner’s career: a visceral grasp of how power worked and a sense of the relatedness of various forms of inequality and oppression—class, race, gender, and global imperialism.   In both her faculty positions she strategized that teaching women’s history would not be enough to build respect for the field, and that she needed to build women’s history programs with visibility and autonomy.  In both places the existence of these programs attracted top-notch students willing to take risks and to pursue graduate work in history not merely as job training but also out of a commitment to making history relevant to movements for social justice.  At Wisconsin she took the job only on the condition that the history department hire a second faculty member in the field, and Linda Gordon came there in 1984.

The Sarah Lawrence and Wisconsin programs combined trained over 40 historians of women and gender, many of them now the leading scholars in the field.  Gerda organized the first ever conference of faculty from graduate programs in women’s history, at which several dozen professors from around the country were able to share syllabi, programmatic developments, teaching methods, etc.

At the University of Wisconsin the women’s history program not only trained academic historians but emphasized outreach.  The program sponsored regular women’s history lectures and publicized them to a broad public.  The program developed a collective project for bringing women’s history into the public schools.  Students and faculty created several slide shows with scripts—this was well before the days of Powerpoint—at both high-school and elementary-school levels on a variety of subjects: women’s work, women in sports, women’s activism.  Schools and teachers were offered presentations, and students and faculty fanned out into a variety of classrooms in Madison to do these.

Throughout her professional life Gerda encountered opposition.  Her drive to overcome it led her to develop a hard-pressing style, pushing those she worked for and with forcefully.  She could be intimidating.  But her efforts made the path of each following generation easier.  No one who knew her ever doubted her commitment to encouraging women’s history and female scholars, or her loyalty to those who worked with her.

Her awards, too numerous to list, include Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, in 1996. Lerner’s teaching and scholarship never focused on those few elite or otherwise successful women who became historically well known.  Her 1969 article “The Lady and the Mill Girl” examined class differences among women in the Jacksonian US.  Her 1972 edited collection of documents, Black Women in White America, proved even to doubters that there were ample sources making the study of African-American women’s history possible.  Her Creation of Patriarchy and Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1986 and 1994) aimed at understanding nothing less than the global origins of male dominance and resistance to it.

Throughout her life Gerda’s intellectual and physical energy was formidable.  An avid hiker, she made arduous treks in the Rockies and wanderings in the North Carolina and Wisconsin woods.  She was also an inspirational speaker, and her lectures throughout the US and in Europe were a major force, not only in building support for women’s history but also in motivating feminist activists.  Her speaking power was related to her exceptionally fine writing.  Her gripping prose showed up in her superb memoir of her husband’s dying, A Death of One’s Own (1978) and then in the autobiography of her early years, Fireweed (2003).  A fireweed is a brilliant cerise wildflower, hardy from the sub-Arctic down through the southern states, one of the first plants to reappear after fire has scorched the earth.  It is determined to grow even under unfavorable conditions, toughhard to eradicate, and thus sometimes a nuisance to gardeners—a fitting metaphor for this powerful, life-loving and nature-loving woman.

Gerda Lerner is survived by her sister, Nora Kronstein Rosen, an acclaimed artist, of Tel Aviv; her son Dan Lerner, film director, producer and cinematographer, of Los Angeles; her daughter Stephanie Lerner-Lapidus, apsychotherapist, of Durham, North Carolina; and four grandchildren, of whom she was extraordinarily proud.

Contributions to honor Gerda Lerner’s legacy and to further the field of women’s history can be made to two funds:

The Lerner-Scott prize of the Organization of American Historians (of which Gerda was president) for the best women’s history dissertation at https://www.oahsecure.org/donate or by mail at  http://www.oah.org/donate/pdf/2012oahdonate.pdf

The Lerner fellowship at the University of Wisconsin History Department at http://history.wisc.edu/alumniandfriends/supporting.htm

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