What if Gerda Lerner Were on TikTok?
People are talking about mainstream feminist issues, like securing abortion rights, fixing the gender wage gap, and ending workplace harassment. Yet I've found there's one issue that isn't so widely discussed, and it's our lack of education on women and women’s history. Think about it: how many women can you remember learning about in your history or science classes in school? You probably know Marie Curie, Joan of Arc, and Rosa Parks; maybe you learned a little bit about Cleopatra (aside from her relationship with Marc Antony). But do the names Emmeline Pankhurst and Rosalind Franklin ring a bell? They should; Pankhurst did vital work for the suffragette movement and Franklin made crucial contributions to the discovery of DNA. Or what about Mary Seacole, the British-Jamaican nurse who overcame discrimination and offered medical care to soldiers in the Crimean war? No?
I wasn't taught about these figures in school. To learn about them myself, I had to google “important women in history.” And that’s a huge problem; women's stories aren't taught in mainstream spaces as often as men’s stories are.
In 1963, Gerda Lerner (another important woman you probably haven't heard of) decided to combat this issue by teaching the first college class on women’s history. She eventually went on to create the first ever PhD program in women’s history at the University of Wisconsin. Along the way, she wrote multiple books and essays establishing women’s history as a legitimate field of study. Before Lerner pioneered this movement, teaching women’s history was mostly considered a non-issue. Thanks to Lerner, most colleges now offer courses about women’s history, feminist theory, and women in literature.
As great as Lerner's contributions were, the American education system is still greatly imbalanced; students are taught much more about men in history than women. Nowadays, we’re still fighting the good fight for more representation in education, but it seems like the movement has died down. Other pressing issues related to health care and reproductive rights need to be addressed, and much of the focus of the feminist movement has shifted towards those causes. I think most people don't even realize that there are large gaps in their knowledge where women’s history is concerned. To address this issue, I think we should seek out young people—people who have their whole lives ahead of them and who need diverse role models to look up to—and continue Lerner's work.
There’s one simple way to reach people these days: the internet. The Jewish Women’s Archive is an example of an organization that takes advantage of this platform in order to make information on women’s history readily available. However, I think it mostly reaches an audience that is already interested in feminist history. So, how do we reach the many people who aren't?
If Gerda Lerner were alive today, I think she’d use TikTok to educate its millions of users about women’s history.
Gerda Lerner would be well-suited to the life of a content creator; she was very creative and a talented writer. In 1951, she worked with poet Eve Merriam on a musical called The Singing of Women. Just a few years later, she co-authored a screenplay with her husband. If Gerda Lerner were around in 2021, I think she would write TikTok sketches about women’s history—and maybe even get costumes and dress up as Ada Lovelace, Boudicca, and Mary Wollstonecraft. I imagine her enlisting friends and family to act in her TikTok skits, with a narrator popping up every so often to add a juicy history tidbit. Maybe her videos would get only a few views at the beginning and she’d feel discouraged, but I know she'd keep creating high-quality videos until she had a major following among Gen Zers and millennials.
Gerda Lerner would teach, and TikTok users would learn. They would leave comments like, “The way I never even knew about this QUEEN,” and “Wait, why is that dress so cute?!?!” Eventually, she'd be reaching hundreds of thousands of people every day and educating them about countless underrepresented historical women.
Gerda Lerner created the field of women’s history, and carved out an academic place for women when there was none. It’s important that we work to continue her efforts; I wish I'd seen more representation in my own classrooms instead of needing to search Google to find it. Though Gerda Lerner can't actually create a TikTok account to teach the world about women’s history today, we can follow in her footsteps and advance the cause ourselves.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Klein, Lana. "What if Gerda Lerner Were on TikTok?." 17 February 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 14, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/what-if-gerda-lerner-were-tiktok>.