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Some people imprint you for life. Gerda Lerner was one of those people. As 2013 dawns, Women’s Studies and Women’s History are standard, credible, degree-producing disciplines. But when I was in college, Gerda Lerner was an almost mythic creature, doing something that no one else had done before: She was teaching women’s history. And at one of the premier colleges in the country, Sarah Lawrence, not someone’s living room in a little private salon.
Whoever heard of such a thing?
Lerner died Jan. 2 in Madison, Wisconsin. She was 92. She is considered one of the founders of Women’s Studies, having created the first graduate program in women’s studies in the country and providing the template for other programs across the U.S. over the years. Lerner also authored more than a dozen pivotal works of women’s history, including Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, The Woman in American History, The Creation of Patriarchy and The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History. She had a phenomenal influence on the teaching of history and on the inclusion of women–and women of color and lesbians–in historical texts.
I met Lerner when I was in college. I had been sent by my university to the founding conference of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA). I was the student representative for the committee attempting to found a women’s studies department at our school. The conference was in San Francisco in January and it was my first plane ride.
My excitement was palpable.
Meeting Lerner was thrilling. Super smart and incredibly serious, Lerner was single-minded. Everything for her was a quest to put women in their rightful place on the map of “history” and she wanted everyone else to understand the importance of that struggle. It was easy to be pulled into the intensity of her aura and within hours of the conference starting she had a satellite of us budding women’s studies majors hanging on her every word.
Everything she said was new to us. Everything she said was something we knew we should write down, commit to memory, pass on to others. She was like the Rosetta Stone of our history, decoding what we had never understood and never known. She was doing what lesbian scholar Mary Daly would later call “dis-covering” our history. She was the cartographer of our female lives and she was right there, in the room with us.
At that conference she said, “Women have always made history as much as men have. Not ‘contributed’ to it. Only they did not know what they had made and had no tools to interpret their own experience. What’s new at this time is that women are fully claiming their past and shaping the tools by means of which they can interpret it.”
She also told us that, “Everything that explains the world has in fact explained a world that does not exist, a world in which men are at the center of the human enterprise and women are at the margin ‘helping’ them. Such a world does not exist–never has.”
It was magical. She was tipping the world back on its axis and re-situating women at the epicenter of history instead of on the perpetual margins.
And so when I heard of Lerner’s death, on another frigid January day (on the plane ride back east from the conference we circled JFK airport in New York for nearly an hour; all but one runway was closed due to ice, but the plane was filled with women from the conference and we continued our talks across country), I was catapulted back to meeting her, to talking with her–literally sitting cross-legged on the floor at her feet–and to remembering how she changed my life with what she taught me–us–with her fervor for the truth about our lives.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune 20 years ago, Lerner said, “When I started working on women’s history about 30 years ago, the field did not exist. People didn’t think women had a history worth knowing.”
Lerner was a larger than life figure. She crammed several lifetimes and careers into her 92 years. A refugee from the Nazis, Gerda Kronstein fled her native Vienna in 1939. Prior to that and after the Anschluss, Lerner had been active in the Resistance. She spent a short time in prison (she wrote about this in both a memoir and screenplay), an experience she did not think she would survive and which she said throughout her life was a touchstone for her activism and her writing.
Once in the U.S., betrothed to a man to whom she was briefly married in order to stay in the country, Lerner worked a variety of low-wage jobs including waitress and seamstress. She met Carl Lerner a few years after she emigrated. They married in 1941 and were together until his untimely death from brain cancer in 1973. In her 2002 memoir, Fireweed: A Political Autobiography, Gerda recounts that he helped her finesse her heavily accented English with repetitions of phrases like “Mae West is wearing a vest.” She wrote about Carl’s illness, death and her attempts to come to terms with it in A Death of One’s Own.
A theater director, Carl Lerner was active in the Communist Party and Gerda joined him in his political work as well as writing.
The couple moved to Los Angeles where Carl worked as a film editor and screenwriter and Gerda wrote fiction, poetry and did other film writing. The two later collaborated on the iconic film, Black Like Me, co-writing the screenplay. Gerda also collaborated with playwright and poet Eve Merriam on a musical, The Singing of Women.
The blacklisting of Jews and Communists in Hollywood sent the Lerners back to New York where Gerda returned to school, earning a series of degrees, including a Master’s and Ph.D. from Columbia which she completed in three years. While still an undergraduate at The New School, she taught what is considered to be the first course ever taught in women’s history, “Great Women in American History.”
It was Lerner’s dissertation that propelled her into what would become her life’s work. That book, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Authority, contextualized the women’s and abolitionist movements in the U.S. I can still remember reading it in a graduate history seminar and thinking how it wasn’t like any other history I had read. Because it was written from a female vantage point. That sounds glib so many years into the women’s studies movement, but for those of us not attending a Seven Sisters college or a prestigious women’s school like Sarah Lawrence, there was no such thing as women’s history and no women teaching history. There were close to 25,000 students in the undergraduate school at my university and nearly 8,000 in the graduate school. But there was one–one–woman teaching in the history department when I was there. So when I went to the campus bookstore to pick up Lerner’s Black Women in White America, which was being taught in my Pan-African Studies course, it was one of only a handful of history books by women and about women–a literal handful. Whereas now, due in no small part to Lerner’s work, such histories abound.
It’s impossible to convey the importance of Lerner’s work and her influence. That book, Black Women in White America, still sits on the Gerda Lerner shelf in my library, a fat, yellowed paperback version (I was on scholarship), autographed by her. That book was one of the first books (following her Grimke sisters’ dissertation) to catalogue–or even note–the accomplishments and lives of African-American women. It details the impact of slavery on black women, the affronts of being “property” and the accomplishments of a series of signal women in the quest for women’s suffrage and also abolition of slavery. The book covers 350 years of the lives of black women.
The Creation of Patriarchy set me on a path to lesbian separatism for a time. In it Lerner deconstructs recorded history as a way to explore how patriarchy developed and how women became the second-class citizens they still are today. It’s an absolutely amazing delineation of how patriarchy evolved in all its aspects–historical, cultural, artistic–from pre-history onward. It explores and explains why women were blotted out of history.
In that book Lerner writes, “What are patriarchal values? Simply the assumption that biological sex differences implies a God-given or at least a ‘natural’ separation of human activities by sex, and the further assumption that this leads to a natural ‘dominance’ of male over female.”
That book was the first volume of her two-volume work Women and History (Oxford University Press). The second part, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to 1870 (that pivotal period where abolition and suffrage meet), details how women were oppressed by lack of education, lack of access to their own culture and society, lack of freedom and independence, the perceptions of biology as destiny.
Yet the massive works Lerner wrote and compiled are not her crowning achievement. Lerner became an archeologist and archivist of women’s lives and women’s history. She collected letters, diary excerpts, speeches made by women like Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and others previously unknown–the bits and pieces of women’s lives that would begin to look like what they were: history of the other half of the human race.
Lerner was quoted in the Chicago Tribune in an interview 20 years ago saying, “In my courses [in graduate school] the teachers told me about a world in which ostensibly one-half of the human race is doing everything significant and the other half doesn’t exist. I asked myself how this checked against my own life experience. ‘This is garbage,’ I said. ‘This is not the world in which I have lived.’”
After Sarah Lawrence, Lerner taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison until she retired. She was also a scholar at Duke University and a professor Emerita at University of Wisconsin where she founded another of the first women’s studies programs in the country. She is survived by a daughter, son and four grandchildren. As well as thousands of students like myself whose lives were forever altered by her work, her intellect and her activism.
In an interview with the New York Times after the publication of Fireweed in 2002, Lerner was asked whether women’s studies were still needed. She replied to the interviewer with a laugh, saying, “For 4,000 years men have defined culture by looking at the activities of other men. The minute we start questioning it, the first question was, ‘Well, when are you going to stop separating yourself out and mainstream? Give us another 4,000 years and we’ll talk about mainstreaming.”