Gerda Lerner dominated the emergence and development of women’s history as a field of academic study in the United States. The ancient Greeks had a word for the distinctive quality of her leadership— Arete, sometimes translated as “virtue,” but more accurately as “being all you can be” or “reaching your highest human potential.” For more than forty years she led the women’s history movement by always reaching higher. She was inspired and her inspiration was contagious. When we followed her example, we were being true to ourselves.
Gerda blazed a trail through academic life slightly ahead of my cohort, who came to women’s history from the social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. She was a generation older than the rest of us and already an accomplished political organizer when she finished her Columbia University Ph.D. in 1966.
Born in Vienna in 1920 to a wealthy Jewish family, she wrote movingly in her autobiography, Fireweed, about her bohemian artist mother who dressed in men’s clothes and lived separately in their large house. Fireweed details two notable events of her youth, the first in the summer of 1936, when she spent “four exciting weeks” at a camp run by J. B.S. Haldane and his wife, both highly respected for their work in genetics, “notorious as active pacifists” and members of the Communist Party. “The respected position these radical intellectuals held in English society was something I had never encountered in Austria and I easily succumbed to their charm,” she said. “I buddied up with a young Oxford student who made it his business to convert me to Marxism the proper way, which consisted of my reading of Marxist classics followed by hours of his explication and discussing the readings with me.”
After the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938, Gerda was imprisoned for six weeks. There she learned harsh, enduring lessons, “thrown in with two women whose knowledge of how to survive was stronger and sounder than my own and whose politics had shaped their knowledge and ethics. I learned from them as I had to, very quickly and thoroughly, and it is to them I owe my survival as much as to anyone. I also owe to them those parts of me that are hard, bitter and frightening to other people.” She learned that “victims didn’t survive,” and “if you wanted to survive you could not do it alone and you had to fight with all your strength to keep some sort of social contract.” This knowledge, she said, “has marked all my life irrevocably.”
Gerda arrived in the United States in 1939. In 1941 she married Carl Lerner, an anti-fascist theater director; they moved to Los Angeles, where he became a successful film editor and she wrote political fiction. Their children, Stephanie and Dan, were born in 1946 and 1947. She and Carl wrote the screenplay Black Like Me (1964), which he directed. She became a leader in the Congress of American Women, which was affiliated with the Communist Party and the Women’s International Democratic Federation and in which she worked closely with Black women community leaders. In Fireweed she remarked, “Our work in CAW had led a number of us who were CP members to be critical of the party’s attitude toward women’s political struggle. As we organized women in the neighborhoods we found that our work was not regarded with the same respect and interest in the CP as was that of people working in trade unions or political mass organizations.” She and others in women’s left organizations felt better about their day-to-day work by remembering “women of the past,” celebrating International Women’s Day, for example, and stories of heroic trade union women.
After the McCarthy anti-communist blacklist demolished Carl’s Hollywood career, they returned to New York, settling in “the progressive community of artists, writers and film people in Croton-on-Hudson.” Gerda ended and later hid her affiliation with the CP, but remained politically active in the local PTA, helping her neighborhood achieve racial integration.
With poet Eve Merriam she wrote a revue, Singing of Women, produced off-Broadway in 1951, which dramatized chapters in American women’s history from the boycotts of colonial women to recent union women’s struggles. “We understood women’s oppression to come from capitalism (‘the boss’), from the remnants of sexism in otherwise supportive males, and, above all, we presented a glorious vision of male-female, black and white cooperation in the greater cause of unionism and peace. … We knew about sexism and class and race and we knew about women’s history, long before the revival of modern feminism.” In 1958, at the age of 38, Gerda enrolled in the New School for Social Research and while still an undergraduate offered her first course in women’s history in 1962. Motivated by the example of Mary Beard’s insistence in Woman as a Force in History (1946) “that women have always been active and at the center of history,” she began graduate study in history at Columbia in 1963, completing her dissertation in 1966 on the radical abolitionist sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimke.
All this, of course, was fabulous training for the struggles that began to transform academia in 1968. We didn’t know then how much Gerda’s personal history accounted for her formidable speaking skills and disciplined professional presence. But from the time she spoke at a panel at the 1968 annual meeting of the American Historical Association, calling on the historical profession to cease being an old boys’ club, we knew there was no one else like her. She didn’t make us feel safe. Quite the contrary. But she brought distinctive cultural and political weapons to the fight that loomed ahead—a graceful German accent, matronly sexuality, and a deep personal knowledge of how to resist illegitimate authority. These were potent weapons, arguably more powerful than the tools we were sharpening in the New Left and our CR groups because they were wielded by an age-peer of the men who dominated our craft.
Another fundamental feature of her power was her commitment to history as a path to human understanding. She taught us to respect our new work in women’s history as far more than an academic field. By 1970 the women’s movement was beginning to generate compelling questions about the history of girls and women, and we proudly demonstrated our social significance by developing courses and writing books that fielded some answers. But Gerda held us to a higher standard: our work was a basic tool in women’s quest to become fully human. Her early methodological essays, collected in The Majority Finds Its Past (1979), insisted on the union of her lived experience and her scholarly work: “I have never felt myself disconnected from that rising stream of consciousness, will, and force which seeks to have women realize their full human potential.” Her broad definition of women’s history challenged us to be bold. “Women’s History is a stance which demands that women be included in whatever topic is under discussion.” Her vision was long. “It is an intellectual movement of seriousness and considerable range, which aims for a new synthesis which will eventually make its continuation unnecessary.”
Gerda began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in 1968 and, in 1972, with Joan Kelly, launched the first MA program in women’s history in the United States. She moved to the University of Wisconsin in 1980, where she created a PhD program in women’s history. In both settings she promoted women’s history as public history. She was proud of helping Molly McGregor create the National Women’s History Project, which successfully mobilized support for the creation of Women’s History Month. Her abundant contributions to historical study were recognized in a cascade of awards. She served as president of the Organization of American Historians in 1981-1982. She retired from the University of Wisconsin in 1990, but continued to live in Madison amidst a wide community of colleagues and friends.
Gerda constantly expanded women’s history onto new terrain. Her second book was a pathbreaking anthology of primary sources—Black Women in White America (1972), which included her own interview with Ella Baker and opened the door to the new field of African American women’s history.
Beginning in the 1980s she radically changed her orientation and completed Creation of Patriarchy (1986) and Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993), masterworks that placed her in a grand tradition of German scholarship. One drew on anthropology and the origins of western civilization to study patriarchy as the source of human oppression. The other argued that women’s lack of education and knowledge of their history allowed men to dominate women. These books brought her to the attention of a wider public in Europe, and she accepted frequent invitations to speak in Vienna and other German-speaking cities. In 1996 she received Austria’s highest honor, the Cross of Honor for Science and Art. Swiss documentary film maker Renata Keller is focusing on Gerda’s impact in Europe as well as the United States in her film Living History: A Documentary of Dr. Gerda Lerner—Her life, Her Work, Her Vision.
The same human qualities that buttressed Gerda’s historical work also made her a loyal friend and family member. In A Death of One’s Own(1978), she described her experience of nursing Carl through his death from a brain tumor. She cared deeply about her friends and kept track of the details in their lives. When I taught at UCLA between 1974 and 1988, she often stayed in my apartment while visiting Dan, her cinematographer, film director and producer son and his family. Her physical presence was always compelling. Dan would drop off Gerda AND her hefty backpack, which she took on arduous Sierra Club hikes before returning east. We co-hosted a conference on graduate training in U.S. women’s history in 1988, and we always had lots of news to share about our professional lives, but the main flow of our conversations embraced concerns about politics, the women’s movement, family, health and happiness.
The personal accent increased as her health declined and she confronted the challenges of aging. For her book In Praise of Aging (2008), she wrote a poem, which, combined with the photography of Sandy Wojtal-Weber, praised “Growing awareness of purposeful seeing,” and “A path with only one outcome that we learn not to fear.”
Gerda Lerner died on January 2, 2013, in Madison, Wisconsin.