NWHM Remembers Dr. Gerda Lerner’s Legacy

NWHM was saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Gerda Lerner on Wednesday, Jan. 2nd. Dr. Lerner, who was 92 years old, was a pioneer in establishing the women’s history field and inspired the work that we do to celebrate, educate and pass on the collective history of American women to the public. Dr. Lerner knew that in order to have a fuller understanding of history, and hence ourselves, the standard field of American history must be compelled to be more inclusive of all of its citizens’ historical experiences, contributions and achievements.

“In my courses, the teachers told me about a world in which ostensibly one-half the human race is doing everything significant and the other half doesn’t exist,” Dr. Lerner told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. “I asked myself how this checked against my own life experience. ‘This is garbage; this is not the world in which I have lived,’ I said.”

With the preponderance of women’s history programs at colleges and universities around the country today, it may be difficult for some to imagine a time in our nation’s past when the field of women’s history didn’t really exist. But it was only about three decades ago that discipline began to solidify as an academic field. Dr. Lerner founded the very first graduate program in women’s history in 1972 at Sarah Lawrence College and set out to collect source materials including diaries, letter and speeches, that would help historians to reconstruct the lives of women. But in the decades that preceded, US history for much of its existence ignored and diminished the importance of women’s lives, work and experiences. The brand of history that long was taught focused almost exclusively on white men, usually those in politics and the military; and women historians, as well as women’s history, were relegated to the footnotes of our national story.

Dr. Lerner spent her life challenging the way historians of the day thought about history. In 1963, she earned her B.A. from the New School for Social Research in New York. She then received her Ph.D. in American History from Columbia University in 1966. Dr. Lerner returned to Columbia to pursue women’s history, a field not yet considered a formal area of study. There she began her battle to gain recognition of women’s history as a separate specialized discipline. That same year Lerner joined fellow activists Betty Friedan, Pauli Murray, Aileen Hernandez, and others in founding the National Organization for Women (NOW). Upon receiving her doctorate, Lerner began teaching at Long Island University. She is credited with teaching the first post-World War II college course in women’s history.

In 1980, she began teaching at the University of Wisconsin and remained there as Professor of History Emerita. At Wisconsin, she established a Ph.D. program in women’s history and continued to help similar fledgling programs at universities throughout the country. In 1981, she became the first female President in 50 years of the Organization of American Historians.

As NWHM reflects on the historic events of this week—the swearing in of the 113th Congress of the United States, we can see the wheels of history turning and a new history being forged. At no other time in our nation’s past have more women occupied a greater presence in Congress than they do now. Twenty women now preside in the Senate and eighty-one in the House. As women’s history classes, museums, historical societies and other organization discuss the historical importance of this week’s events, they should also consider the legacy of Dr. Lerner’s life-long work in helping to make these types of conversations possible.

NWHM honors Dr. Lerner’s memory, legacy and her life’s work. Without her commitment to ensuring that women’s history be viewed as a central area of scholarship, we would not exist.

“Women’s History is the primary tool for women’s emancipation.”

-Dr. Gerda Lerner

Please click here to view a short clip about the life of Dr. Lerner taken from the Museum’s film: “The Keepers of History.”

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