News Column

Gerda Lerner, Women's Historian, Dies at 92

Jan. 4, 2013

Rebecca Villaneda--HispanicBusiness

Gerda Lerner, Photo courtesy of the Jewish Women's Archive website.
Gerda Lerner, Photo courtesy of the Jewish Women's Archive website.

A pioneer in the history of women, Gerda Lerner, died on Jan. 2. She was 92.

Lerner, an author, teacher and historian, was one of the founders of the field of women's history.

She was born Gerda Kronstein to a Jewish family in Vienna. They later escaped Nazi persecution. However, Lerner did spend six weeks around the time of her 18th birthday in an Austrian jail where she met "two gentile women arrested for political work who shared their food with the Jewish teenager because jailers restricted rations for Jews," according to USA Today.

She later said this experience with the women taught her how to survive, and how society can manipulate people, and that it became "a source of courage for her and enabled her later to face with equanimity the dragons of the academic world," according to the Jewish Women's Archive (JWA) website.

After she immigrated to New York in 1939, she worked as a waitress, salesgirl, office clerk and X-ray technician while learning English, and began her writing career. Her first books were about Nazi brutality.

In 1941 she married Carl Lerner, a film editor and theater director, who was an active member of the Communist Party USA. They lived in Hollywood for some years before returning to New York.

During the next few decades, Lerner continued to write and also earned an M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1965 and 1966, respectively.

In 1966, Lerner became a founding member of the National Organization for Women. The organization's motto: "Taking Action for Women's Equality Since 1966."

She began concentrating her efforts on the development of the field of women's history. According to JWA, her efforts were divided into three directions: As an author, she produced important writings; as a teacher she built new curricula; and as a member of the historical profession, she demanded equality for women within its ranks.

She taught what is considered to be the first women's history course in the world at the New School for Social Research in 1963, and from 1968 to 1979 at Sarah Lawrence College she established the nation's first women's history graduate program. It was at Sarah Lawrence College that she led efforts of the establishment of women's history month and a project for the promotion of African-American women's history.

In 1980, Lerner created the nation's first Ph.D. program in women's history, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she later became a professor emerita of history. She also was a visiting scholar at Duke University.

Lerner was the recipient of many awards and honors, as well as 17 honorary degrees, including one from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2004.

In an undated interview with Jeffrey Mishlove, Lerner explained her pursuit of making women's history mainstream as well as discussed her two books, "The Creation of Patriarchy" and "The Creation of Feminist Consciousness."

The lack of information, she said, causes problems in society for both men and women.

"The effect on men has been very bad too, of the omission of women's history, because men have been given the impression that they're much more important in the world than they actually are, and that's not a good way to become a human being," she said. "If you can think, as a man, that everything great in the world and in civilization was created by men, then naturally you have to look down on women, and naturally you have to have different aspirations for your sons than for your daughters, and I don't think that's good for men either. So it was that problem that concerned me when I undertook the research for these two books."

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