Gerda Lerner (1920-2013)
A pioneer of women’s history, Gerda Lerner has helped to shape this field of study through narrative, theory, and activism for over 40 years. In the 20th century, Lerner played a central role in the establishment of women’s history as a formal academic field. Quoted by President Carter in his proclamation of the first National Women’s History Week, Lerner proclaimed, “Women’s history is women’s right—an essential, indispensable heritage from which we can draw pride, comfort, courage, and long range vision.”
Born in 1920 to a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, Gerda Kronstein was a young girl when Adolph Hitler began his rise to power. In protest of Hitler’s efforts to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population, a courageous teenage Kronstein joined the underground resistance to the Nazi occupation. However, she and her family were caught and forced into exile in 1938. Gerda came alone to the United States in 1939 at the age of 18. Her immigration was dependent upon an arranged marriage that soon failed. She divorced, remarried noted filmmaker Carl Lerner, and moved to Hollywood. There, in 1946, she joined the American Communist Party.
During the McCarthy period, Carl was blacklisted and unable to find work in California. The Lerner family moved to New York where Gerda began her career as an academic, historian, and activist. By the early 1960s, the couple had distanced themselves from the CP and joined the struggle for civil rights.
In 1963, Gerda Lerner earned her B.A. from the New School for Social Research in New York. She then received her Ph.D. in American History from Columbia University in 1966. Lerner returned to Columbia to pursue women’s history, a field not yet considered a formal area of study. There she began her battle to gain recognition of women’s history as a separate specialized discipline. That same year Lerner joined fellow activists Betty Friedan, Pauli Murray, Aileen Hernandez, and others in founding the National Organization for Women (NOW).
Upon receiving her doctorate, Lerner began teaching at Long Island University. She is credited with teaching the first post-World War II college course in women’s history. Lerner soon moved on to Sarah Lawrence College, where she founded the first graduate program in women’s history in 1972 and served as its director from 1972-76 and 1978-79. In 1980, she began teaching at the University of Wisconsin and remains there today as Professor of History Emerita. At Wisconsin, she established a Ph.D. program in women’s history and continued to help similar fledgling programs at universities throughout the country. In 1981, Lerner became the first female President in 50 years of the Organization of American Historians.
Gerda Lerner’s accomplishments and contributions to the field of women’s history have been fundamental to its development. Her many works include The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition (1998), The Woman in American History (1971 textbook), The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (1979), Why History Matters (1997), and numerous other significant essays and texts that have helped direct the study of American, women’s and global history.
Lerner has offered scholars a guide to and definition of the field of women’s history. In her essay “Placing Women in History,” Lerner explains the evolution of the investigation of women’s pasts and how it has progressed from a focus on the historical narrative to one that concentrates on theory and interpretation. The “Compensatory Stage” in which notable women are identified acknowledges those ignored by scholars, but fails to reveal the role of women within the greater historical narrative. “Contribution History,” which acknowledges women’s roles in social development moves closer to a more complete historical analysis. In the third stage, scholars revisit the general history of a particular period or movement and examine the differing experiences of men and women. The fourth phase, she explains, is an examination of the process of interpretation that occurs in the third phase. Historians seek an understanding of how and why gender dictates meaning and experience for individuals and groups.
Gerda Lerner’s groundbreaking efforts and theories in the field of American history have helped to advance the study of history in the second half of the 20th century. By demanding that attention be paid to the study of women’s roles, contributions, and experiences in society, she has contributed to the successes of the feminist movement, the struggle for gender and racial equality in the United States, and the diversification and development of historical research. Lerner passed away on January 2, 2013 at the age of 92.
- Felder, Deborah G. , Rosen, Deborah L. Fifty Jewish Women Who Changed the World. New York: Citadel Press, 2003
- Lerner, Gerda. Why History Matters: Life and Thought, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997
- Kerber, Linda K., and Jane Sherron De Hart. “Gender and the New Women’s History.” Women’s America: Refocusing the Past. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004
- “Gerda Lerner,” The Jewish Women’s Archives. http://www.jwa.org/feminism/_html/JWA048.htm (August 8, 2007)
- “Honorary Degrees Awarded to Leaders and Innovators in Several Fields.” Columbia University Website http://www.columbia.edu/cu/news/06/05/honorary.html. (August 8, 2007)
- Lerner, Gerda. “Placing Women in History.” Major Problems in American Women’s History. ED Mary Beth Norton & Ruth M. Alexander. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996. 1-7
- Scanlon, Jennifer, Cosner, Shaaron. American Women Historians: 1700s-1990s: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996
- Weatherford, Doris. Milestones: A Chronology of American Women’s History. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1997
- Photo credit: John Urban at PortalWisconsin