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10 Quotes from the Jewish Founder of Women's History Month

Gerda Lerner is the reason why Women’s History Month exists.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna, Lerner (née Kronstein) experienced what it was like to quickly lose privilege and a sense of security when Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938. After surviving the Holocaust, she emigrated to America alone. She earned her Ph.D. at 46 and went on to pioneer the field of women’s history, creating the first graduate program in women’s history at Sarah Lawrence College in 1972. She recalled:

 “When I started working on women's history the field did not exist. People didn't think that women had a history worth knowing.”

By the time Dr. Lerner convened the first conference of women historians in 1979, the field of women’s history was gaining momentum and national prominence. As the Women's Action Alliance and the Smithsonian Institution came to a close in the summer of 1979, a large-scale project was proposed: the creation of a national weeklong celebration of women’s history. The first national Women's History Week was proclaimed by President Carter in 1980 and the week brought forth such a wealth of women’s stories that the observance was expanded into Women's History Month in 1987.

Here are some choice quotes about marginality, what progress looks like, and why women’s history matters, from the Jewish woman who started it all!

On growing up during the Holocaust:

“Having lived through the transition from being an accepted and rather privileged member of society and from one day to the next being a total outcast and victim, I learned something about how society can manipulate people … I applied that to understanding how it was possible to manipulate half the people of the world to accept that they are inferior." (Fireweed, 2002)

On limited historical role models:

“The only heroine that women of my generation grew up with was Joan of Arc—and we all knew what end she came to." (Thinking Allowed with Jeffrey Mishlove, 2010)

On why learning women’s history is a birthright, and a revolutionary act:

“Women's history is women's right––an essential, indispensable heritage from which we can draw pride, comfort, courage, and long-range vision.” (National Women's History Week Statement by the President)

“Women’s history is the primary tool for women’s emancipation.” (Ms. Magazine, September 1981)

“Emphasis on the 'great man' omits women, minorities, many of the actual agents of social change. In so doing, it gives a partial, often erroneous picture of how social change was actually achieved in the past, and thereby fosters apathy and confusion about how social change can be made in the present.” (Living with History/Making Social Change, 2009)

On autonomy:

“Autonomy means moving out from a world in which one is born to marginality, to a past without meaning, and a future determined by others––into a world in which one acts and chooses, aware of a meaningful past and free to shape one's future.” (The Female Experience: An American Documentary, 1977)

On patriarchy and toxic masculinity:

"Men have been given the impression that they're much more important in the world than they actually are—and that's not a good way to become a human being." (Thinking Allowed with Jeffrey Mishlove, 1987)

"Everything that explains the world has in fact explained a world that does not exist, a world in which men are at the center of the human enterprise and women are at the margin 'helping' them. Such a world does not exist—never has." (Ms. Magazine, 1981)

“The system of patriarchy is a historic construct; it has a beginning; it will have an end … What will come after, what kind of structure will be the foundation for alternate forms of social organization we cannot yet know. We are living in an age of unprecedented transformation. We are in the process of becoming.” (The Creation of Patriarchy, 1986)

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2 Comments

I wish I had gone to college during the years of "Women's Studies".  I would have bathed in it.  Maybe in my next life.

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Gerda Lerner, 1981
Full image

Women's history pioneer Gerda Lerner (1920 – 2013) in 1981.

Photo: Martha Nelson. University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives.

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How to cite this page

Book, Bella, and Abby Richmond. "10 Quotes from the Jewish Founder of Women's History Month." 14 March 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 21, 2018) <https://jwa.org/blog/10-quotes-from-jewish-founder-of-womens-history-month>.

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