Even among ambitious, intelligent, type A+ activists, there are extraordinary people who stand out above the flock: leaders and individuals who by force of effort, intellect, oratory, or good works are remarkable and attract and demand our attention. Gerda Lerner, who died on January 2, 2013 in Madison, Wisconsin, was such a person. She was a feminist historian who established women’s history as an academic enterprise worthy of attention and respect, and inspired two generations of students and scholars.
Born Gerda Kronstein to a privileged Jewish Vienna family, she, from her teenage years on, took seriously the imperatives of social engagement, democracy, distributive justice, and making the world a better place. As she told the Wisconsin Academy when her autobiography, Fireweed, was published in 2002, “To me the connection between politics and thinking is a very close one and one that I believe is essential to my life. In our culture, and in most patriarchal cultures, we have made an artificial division between thinking and acting, as though the two were mutually exclusive.”
When jailed by the Austrian Nazi authorities at age eighteen, she managed to study for her pre-university exams while organizing a collective with her fellow prisoners to sustain their survival. She later would say that her six weeks of jail experience taught her all she needed to know about the human qualities, positive and negative, that had to be engaged, transformed, and managed in order to create a better society.
Before achieving renown as an academic, Lerner was a novelist, screenwriter, and union activist. She was active as a community organizer and in improving conditions in her children’s school. Whatever her ostensible profession, she was always an advocate, thinking about and acting upon the implications of her work on the social and political workings of everyday life. She was never quiet about accepting the status quo when she saw social inequality or thought justice had been abridged. This meant action on workers rights in Vienna, Hollywood, and New York, racial equality in Los Angeles and New York, attention to the aging in Madison, and women’s rights everywhere.
Lerner’s yearning for a way to promote social justice led her to the Communist Party in the 1950s. Over time she found that the party—which was “supposed to be working for a goal far larger than that of their own ambitions….a place where people became better than they were, where they learned to turn away from the selfishness, individualism, and competitiveness of the larger society,” as she wrote in Fireweed—turned out in practice to be none of those things. This was a grave disappointment, but did not thwart her. She continued her activism and returned to school at age thirty-eight. Originally thinking her studies would help her write another historical novel (she published No Farewell in 1955), she ended up getting a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and embarking on a half-century of academic scholarship and activism.
Lerner would create the first academic graduate program in women’s history at Sarah Lawrence College, and the first Ph.D. program in women’s history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her work as a researcher, writer, and teacher helped establish the discipline and for this she has been widely recognized in this country and around the world. Lerner’s great strength was to view women’s history as not only an archive-based understanding of the past (at a time when most historians ignored the female half of society), but also as a path to transforming a society that has ignored and denigrated women. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1993, she said:
In my [education], the teachers told me about a world in which ostensibly one-half the human race is doing everything significant and the other half doesn’t exist period. I asked myself how this checked against my own life experience. This is garbage; this is not the world in which I have lived.
Lerner was a committed feminist ready for the long haul. As she wrote in Dissent in 1998, “Those who transform nonviolently sign up for the long duration….[Feminism] will continue to live and grow, as long as women anywhere have ‘grievances.’” Through her scholarship and teaching as well as through her political work, Gerda Lerner has been a true force of history.