The Summer Institute for Leaders of Women’s Organizations, held in 1979, was co-sponsored by Sarah Lawrence College, the Women’s Action Alliance (an umbrella organization of 100 women’s organizations), and the Smithsonian Institution. The goal of the Institute was to take women of high achievement and varying educational levels, heterogeneous as to race, ethnicity, class, and culture, and to offer them an educational experience that would lead to changes in perceptions, attitudes, and values. During the Institute, we created a feminist community free of competition, status-consciousness, private ambition, and prejudice. The Institute encouraged the sharing of experiences, group process, an atmosphere in which disagreement could be taken for granted, worked through, and resolved.
Forty-three women, each an elected official of her organization, represented a full spectrum of women’s organizations, among them National Council of Jewish Women, B’nai Brith, YMCA, Girl Scouts, American Association of University Women, Women Religious (nuns), and many smaller groups. Faculty and students lived together on campus during the 15 days of the Institute. During the day, participants received the equivalent of a full semester seminar on American Women’s History. They did some readings, wrote short papers, and prepared group presentations.
Each evening, the participants planned some shared cultural events. The dynamic interaction of these outstanding leaders living and working together in a “free space” – free from interruptions, free from the demands of daily life, free to think creatively – was astounding. The evening sessions lasted into the morning hours. Whatever divisions might have appeared in the daytime activities were rearranged and disappeared during the cultural events of the evenings.
Encouraged to focus on one large group project that would be carried out after the end of the Institute, the group chose “making the celebration of Women’s History Week a national event.” They understood that this was a vast undertaking that would require them annually to secure a joint resolution of Congress and then the President’s signature. Undaunted and aware of the strength of the organizations they represented, they took on this task and fulfilled it. This proclamation by President Jimmy Carter was the first of its kind – and it has been repeated every year since 1980 by different Presidents and different Congresses. From 1980 on, the celebration of Women’s History Week, and later, Women’s History Month, spread to every state, every county, and most communities in the U.S.A.
Gerda Lerner was a pioneer in the field of women’s history. She was born in Vienna, Austria in 1920. As a teenager, she experienced the Nazi’s rise to power and became involved in the underground resistance movement. She was imprisoned and then, with her family, forced into exile. In 1939, she alone was able to find refuge in America, where she became a political activist. Lerner received a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University in 1966 and soon after began teaching at Long Island University in Brooklyn and then Sarah Lawrence College. She founded the first graduate program in women’s history at Sarah Lawrence and created the Ph.D. program in women’s history at the University of Wisconsin. Lerner helped establish National Women’s History Month, and wrote several novels and groundbreaking scholarly books, including: The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery; Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, and The Majority Finds its Past. Gerda Lerner passed away on January 2, 2013.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Gerda Lerner." (Viewed on February 15, 2019) <https://jwa.org/feminism/lerner-gerda>.