"What is Women's History?"
June 5, 2005
On June 5, 2005, acclaimed historian Gerda Lerner received an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In granting the degree, the president and rector of the Hebrew University noted, "For many young people, your remarkable academic career, achieved despite the harrowing experiences suffered during the Nazi era in Europe, provides a model of what may be accomplished in the face of adversity." The following day, as part of a conference in her honor, she gave a keynote address titled, "What Is Women's History and Why Should We Study It?" Lerner is widely regarded as uniquely positioned to answer that question, having shaped the field of women's history from its earliest beginnings.
Born on April 30, 1920, and raised in an assimilated middle-class home in Vienna, Gerda Lerner fled Europe for New York in 1939, after being imprisoned for six weeks by the Nazis. Two years later, she married film editor Carl Lerner. Gerda Lerner had been active in student politics in Vienna, and she remained politically active in the U.S. In the 1950s, she became active in the Congress of American Women, a left-leaning women's group concerned with economic and social issues. She also campaigned for civil rights for African Americans and worked in support of the United Nations. Both Lerners were involved with the Communist Party, and Carl was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. During this period, Lerner published several short stories and a novel, No Farewell (1955), set in Vienna on the eve of Nazi occupation.
In the late 1950s, Lerner set out to write a novel about the abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké. Realizing that she needed to know more about their historical context, she enrolled in courses at the New School for Social Research. Enthralled by the topic, she completed a Ph.D. in history at Columbia in 1966. Her dissertation was published as The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (1967). Since then, Lerner has made an indelible mark on the field of history.
In the late 1960s, a growing number of women were entering the profession, and their presence reshaped the field. Lerner led this change, directing the country's first graduate program in women's history, at Sarah Lawrence College. In 1980, she moved to the University of Wisconsin, where she established a Ph.D. program in women's history. At the same time, Lerner was active in demanding equality for women within the ranks of the profession. In 1981, she became president of the Organization of American Historians, the first woman to hold that position since 1946.
In addition, Lerner's scholarship broke new ground. A 1969 article, "The Lady and the Mill Girl," introduced class analysis into women's history. The anthology Black Women in White America (1972) showed the importance of African-American women's history, and remained for many years the only available text for teaching that history. Other important works include The Majority Finds Its Past (1979), The Creation of Patriarchy (1986), which won the Joan Kelly Prize of the American Historical Association, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993), and Why History Matters: Life and Thought (1997).
In 1995, Lerner's lifetime of work was recognized in her native Austria, when she was awarded both the Kaethe Leichter Prize, honoring exiled Jewish intellectuals, and the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, the highest honor given by the State of Austria. In 2002, she published an autobiography, Fireweed, detailing her political life before she entered the academy. Professor Emerita of U.S. women's history at the University of Wisconsin and Scholar-in-Residence at Duke University, she remained in demand as a speaker and gave frequent lectures at campuses around the country. Gerda Lerner passed away on January 2, 2013.
To learn more about Gerda Lerner, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia and Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution.
Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 827-829; Gerda Lerner, Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (Philadelphia, 2002); http://today.duke.edu/2004/03/califf_0304.html; Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution, jwa.org/feminism/?id=JWA048.