1920 – 2013
Entering the field of United States history with a freshly minted Ph.D. in 1966, Gerda Lerner blazed a new professional path that led to the establishment of the field of women’s history. The force of her personality and her commitment to the possibilities contained in the historical study of women made her impervious to the ridicule with which the male-dominated historical profession initially responded to the notion of women’s history.
Gerda (Kronstein) Lerner was born and educated in Vienna, Austria, the elder of two daughters of Robert and Ilona (Neumann) Kronstein. She grew up in a well-to-do, assimilated family that considered itself liberal and thoroughly Austrian. While preparing for her bat mitzvah, she was nevertheless keenly aware that women could not fully participate in Jewish services. In her first feminist action, Gerda decided not to join the ceremony, declaring that she did not believe in God.
Her father, a pharmacist and businessman, fled after the Germans annexed Austria in 1938. Stormtroopers subsequently raided the family’s apartment, and weeks later, to force her father to sign over his property to the Nazis, they imprisoned Gerda and her mother for six weeks under conditions that made Gerda believe she would not survive. Facing death in this way became a source of courage for her and enabled her later to face with equanimity the dragons of the academic world.
Gerda immigrated to New York in 1939, the only member of her family to obtain a visa. Working as a waitress, salesgirl, office clerk, and X-ray technician to support herself while she learned English, she began to write fiction about Nazi brutality and the capacity to resist it. “The Prisoners” was published in 1941 and “The Russian Campaign” in 1943. She married Carl Lerner, a respected film editor, in 1941. They lived in Hollywood for some years before returning to New York. Their daughter, Stephanie, was born in 1945; their son, Daniel, in 1947.
Lerner became politically active in the Congress of American Women, a progressive grassroots women’s group concerned with economic and consumer issues. She also participated in events sponsored by the Emma Lazarus Federation, worked in support of the United Nations, and actively supported civil rights for African Americans. Continuing to write, she collaborated with Eve Merriam on a musical called the Singing of Women, which was produced off-Broadway in 1951. Her novel No Farewell (1955) focused on Vienna on the eve of German occupation. For Carl Lerner’s directorial debut she coauthored the screenplay Black Like Me (1964). She later described her husband’s death in a moving memoir, A Death of One’s Own (1978).
In the late 1950s, Lerner began work on a novel about Sarah and Angelina Grimké, the South Carolina sisters who migrated north, became featured speakers of the American antislavery society, and ignited the explosion of women’s rights within the abolitionist movement. Seeking more information about her subject, she enrolled in courses at the New School for Social Research. There her fascination with the topic prompted her to teach one of the first courses in women’s history. After completing a B.A. in 1963, Lerner went on to complete an M.A. and Ph.D. at Columbia in 1966. Her dissertation was published as The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (1967).
Thereafter, Lerner poured her considerable talents into the development of the field of women’s history. Her energies flowed in three directions: As an author she produced important writings, as a teacher she built new curricula, and as a member of the historical profession she demanded equality for women within its ranks.
Lerner’s efforts were amplified by the new generation of women who joined the historical profession between 1967 and 1972, many of whom were attracted to women’s history. The field began to take shape as the questions posed by the women’s movement combined with answers forged through the methodological innovations of social history. During the years that women’s history gradually emerged as an academic discipline, Lerner’s leadership remained crucial.
As an innovative writer, Lerner expanded the boundaries of women’s history. Her 1969 article “The Lady and the Mill Girl” was an early and influential example of class analysis in women’s history. Her documentary anthology Black Women in White America (1972) demonstrated the importance of African-American women within women’s history. In The Female Experience (1976), she developed a chronology and periodization that reorganized history around life-cycle categories. Her methodological writings, collected in The Majority Finds Its Past (1979), analyzed the field’s achievements and predicted its future trajectory.
In 1968, Lerner joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College and later became director of its women’s history master’s degree program. At Sarah Lawrence, Lerner fostered projects that demonstrated the relevance of women’s history to women’s lives, including the establishment of women’s history month and a project for the promotion of African-American women’s history. Through summer institutes and a vigorous speaking schedule, she worked tirelessly to advance women and women’s history in American culture and the historical profession. Her labors were rewarded in 1981 when she became president of the Organization of American Historians, the first woman to hold that position since 1946. In 1980, Lerner moved to the University of Wisconsin, where she founded a new Ph.D. program in women’s history. Her interest in graduate teaching led to a national conference in 1988 at which sixty-three scholars from fifty-five institutions evaluated graduate teaching in United States women’s history.
In the late 1970s, Lerner’s scholarly interests shifted to European history. Raising some of the same questions that Friedrich Engels had addressed in 1884 in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, she searched for the origins of patriarchy and the subordination of women. In The Creation of Patriarchy (1986), she challenged traditional conceptions of the emergence of slavery to construct new definitions of class and to reveal new meanings of customary ideas and metaphors about women. Her work received the Joan Kelly Prize of the American Historical Association for the best book in women’s and social theory that year. In The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993), Lerner exposed the devastating effects on women of their exclusion from the historical record. She persuasively argued that women’s struggle to comprehend their own history lies at the heart of their ability to envision a world in which they are full participants.
In 1995, the Austrian Ministry of Women’s Affairs awarded Lerner the Kaethe Leichter Prize, which honors exiled Jewish intellectuals who have built lifetimes of distinguished achievement. That year, she was also awarded the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, the highest honor given by the State of Austria. In 1997, she published two new books, Why History Matters: Life and Thought and The Feminist Thought of Sarah Grimké. In 2002, she published Fireweed: A Political Autobiography.
Although for many years Gerda Lerner did not focus her research on Jewish themes, in interviews during the 1990s she spoke of the importance of her experiences as a Jew, a Jewish woman, and a refugee in shaping her commitment to history and to women’s history. The Holocaust created in her a need to keep memory alive, and her status as an outsider helped her to understand women as an out-group.
Gerda Lerner has received many honors, among them the Lifetime Achievement Award for Scholarly Distinction of the American Historical Association, the Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Historical Writing of the Society of American Historians, and seventeen honorary degrees, including one from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2004.
Antler, Joyce. The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century (1997);
“Gerda Lerner.” Profiles. History Department, University of Wisconsin, Madison;
“Introduction.” U.S. History as Women’s History: New Feminist Essays. Edited by Linda K. Kerber, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Kathryn Kish Sklar (1995);
Lerner, Gerda. Interview by author, January 19, 1997.