Gerda Lerner died this past week on January 2. She was 92 years old. If you’re asking yourself ‘Who is Gerda Lerner?’ she was the person who brought Women’s Studies (the history of women) to the world.
Gerda was born Gerda Hedwig Kronstein in Vienna, Austria, on April 30, 1920. She grew up in a wealthy family and noticed the inequities of life even as a child. In a house full of servants, she watched her mother drop her books, newspapers, and clothing where she pleased while the servants picked them up. She didn’t think it was very fair. And then there was the bat mitzvah incident. As she prepared herself for the ceremony, she realized Judaism did not allow girls and women to achieve the same positions as men. She announced she did not believe in God and refused to take part in the ceremony.
As she grew into her teens, Adolph Hitler was growing his Nazi party and, by the time she was 17, he had annexed her homeland. Her father, a pharmacist with several drug stores, heard he was to be arrested, and fled to Lichtenstein. The Nazis arrested Gerda and her mother instead. For six weeks she languished in jail while the Nazi’s hoped her father would return and sign over all he owned to get them back.
Jail wasn’t easy. Gerda believed she would either be killed or sent to a concentration camp. Along with the mental stress, there was also little to eat. Food for prisoners was minimal, and Jews received even less than others. But Gerda was lucky. Two other prisoners - gentile women, arrested for their underground work with the resistance - shared their food with her and her mother. When Gerda asked them why, they replied, “We’re Socialists.”
Eventually, Gerda was released and joined the resistance. In 1939, she and her boyfriend escaped Austria and immigrated to America. They married but the relationship didn’t last. Gerda was alone in a New York. She took odd jobs while she learned the language, and wrote stories about the Nazi takeover and occupation. By 1940, she had met Carl Lerner, a communist and theater director. They married and moved to California.
Gerda began working with CAW, the Congress of American Women, and by 1946, had helped found the Los Angeles chapter.
“In Vienna, all the people I worked with were women: the people in the jail, the people in the underground . . . I saw women being active in every levelexcept the executive level.”
She continued to write, producing a novel and a musical, and co-authored the screenplay, Black Like Me, with her husband. She was active in the causes of trade unions, civil rights, anti-militarism, and McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist. She was also a founding member of NOW, the National Organization of Women.
In the late 1950’s, she decided to go back to school. She attended the New School for Social Research and went on to get an M.A. and Ph.D from Columbia University. When she told her professors she wanted to study women’s history, they laughed at her.
“They made me a laughingstock. They thought I was crazy. Graduate school was not a happy experience for me. I was presented with a narrative of the past in which women did not exist. I kept saying, ‘Where are the women?’ I was told they were having babies.”
Gerda studied women’s history anyway and wrote her dissertation, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (1967.) She found their story to be so fascinating she decided to teach a course on them. Once again, the men she had to deal with made that difficult.
In 1968, she became a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and started the first program ever to offer a Masters degree in women's history. She also worked in the civil rights movement, which led her to write Black Women in America: A Documentary History.
“ . . . when I worked with black women, I was overwhelmed by the talent and persistence of their effort—and their total invisibility. I was told they left no record. I knew that to be a lie. My experience told me that. This was the first collection of primary sources by black women at a time when everybody told me that it was impossible to do that.”
In 1980, she created the nation's first Ph.D. program in women's history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. From 1981 to 1982, she served as president of the Organization of American Historians and helped make women's history accessible to leaders of women's organizations and high school teachers. In 1993, she wrote The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, which deals with how exclusion from the historical record affects women. In 1997, she published two more books – Why History Matters: Life and Thought, and The Feminist Thought of Sarah Grimke. In 2002, she published Fireweed: A Political Autobiography.Gerda stayed active and involved until the end. It’s said she ‘even agitated at the Oakwood retirement center in Madison Wisconsin’ where she lived her last few years.
“It’s such a total absurdity that one half of the human population had accrued to itself the pretense that what it did was significant and what the other half did was insignificant. The emancipation of women is irreversible. You can’t wipe women out.”