Pioneering women's history summer institute

July 18, 1979
Gerda Lerner.
Courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

In the summer of 1979, a fifteen-day conference (July 13-29), co-sponsored by Sarah Lawrence, the Women's Action Alliance and the Smithsonian Institution, was held at Sarah Lawrence College. Intended for female leaders, it was attended by a diverse range of participants representing 43 different women's organizations.

The institute was organized by Sarah Lawrence professor Gerda Lerner. One of the pioneers of women's history, Lerner hoped to introduce a diverse group of varied backgrounds to the possibilities of women's history. Lerner described the fifteen-day course as equivalent to a semester-long seminar. In addition to ongoing afternoon workshops and evening cultural events, each morning's program featured one lecture by the seminar instructors. Joining Lerner as the principle instructors were Alice Kessler-Harris and Amy Swerdlow, both pioneering feminists and women's historians. Their daily lectures included the following topics: "Women's Work in the Home & in the Workplace," "ERA, 1920's Style" (Kessler-Harris); "Black Women in White America," "Control of Women's Sexuality and the Threat of Women's Deviance," "Women as Community Builders," (Lerner); and "Women in Reform Movements," and "How Women's Suffrage was Won" (Swerdlow).

Asked to create one large group project, seminar members adopted the goal, suggested by one of the participants, of "making the celebration of Women's History Week a national event." Institute alumni returned to their homes across the country and began to press for publicly sponsored women's history programs at both the local and national level. Securing a joint resolution of Congress and the approval of President Jimmy Carter, the first national Women's History Week was proclaimed in 1980. Women's History Week brought forth such a wealth of programs in so many schools, universities, and communities, that the observance was expanded into Women's History Month in 1987. Beyond Women's History Week, the Institute also led indirectly to the introduction of an abundance of historical programming at the local and national level, including the creation of the National Women's History Project.

A 25th reunion of the Women's History Institute (September 10, 2004) celebrated its role in "launching a national movement to recognize, honor, and celebrate women's historic achievements."

Sources: "Summer Institute in Women's History, July 13-29, 1979," schedule, Sarah Lawrence College Archives; National Women's History Project website:


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Pioneering women's history summer institute." (Viewed on April 16, 2024) <>.