Women’s History Pioneer Gerda Lerner Dies At 92

Gerda Lerner

MILWAUKEE (AP) – Gerda Lerner, a pioneer in the field of women’s
history and a founding member of the National Organization for
Woman, has died in Wisconsin, her son said Thursday. She was 92.

Lerner, who founded the nation’s first graduate program in
women’s history, died peacefully Wednesday evening of apparent old
age at an assisted-living facility in Madison, Dan Lerner told The
Associated Press.

“She was always a very strong-willed and opinionated woman,”
he recalled. “I think those are the hallmarks of great people,
people that have strong points of view and firmly held
convictions.”

Gerda Lerner was born in Vienna, Austria, into a privileged
Jewish family in 1920. When the Nazis rose to power, she was
imprisoned and spent her 18th birthday behind bars, in a cell with
two other young women who had been arrested for political work.
Jailers restricted rations for Jews, but the gentile women shared
thei food with her.

“They taught me how to survive,” she wrote in “Fireweed: a
Political Autobiography.” “Everything I needed to get through the
rest of my life I learned in jail in those six weeks.”

She said the experience taught her how society can manipulate
people. It was a lesson she saw reinforced in American academia by
history professors who taught as though the only figures worth
studying were men.

“When I was faced with noticing that half the population has no
history, and I was told that that’s normal, I was able to resist
the pressure” to accept that conclusion, she told the Wisconsin
Academic Review in 2002.

She became impassioned about the issue of gender equality. As a
professor at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., she
founded a women’s studies program _ including the first graduate
program in women’s history in the U.S.

She later moved to Madison, where she helped establish a
doctoral program in women’s history at the University of Wisconsin.

Her daughter, Stephanie Lerner, said her mother earned a
reputation as a no-nonsense professor who held her students to
rigorous standards that some may not have appreciated at the time.
One former student wrote to Gerda Lerner 30 years later saying no
one had been more influential in her life.

“She said, `I thought you were impossible, difficult, not
understanding, but you gave me a model of commitment that I’ve
never had before,”’ Stephanie Lerner recalled. “That’s just how
she was.”

Even as Gerda Lerner held others to high standards, she took no
shortcuts herself. For example, Stephanie Lerner said her mother
loved hiking in the mountains, even as she got older and her
mobility was challenged.

Stephanie Lerner recalled one particular hike with her mother
about 30 years ago on a steamy California day. Stephanie Lerner
brought a light day-pack, but Gerda Lerner toted a hefty 50-pound
sack because she wanted to train for futre hikes.

“I was much younger and very in shape. But at a certain point I
said I couldn’t do it anymore,” Stephanie Lerner said. “She just
went on ahead. That was her joy, her determination.”

Gerda Lerner wrote several textbooks on women’s history,
including “The Creation of Patriarchy” and “The Creation of
Feminist Consciousness.” She also edited “Black Women in White
America,” one of the first books to document the struggles and
contributions of black women in American history.

She married Carl Lerner, a respected film editor, in 1941. They
lived in Hollywood for a few years before returning to New York.
The couple were involved in activism that ranged from attempting
to unionize the film industry to working in the civil rights
movement.

When asked how she developed such a strong sense of justice and
fairness, she told the Wisconsin Academy Review that the feeling
started in childhood. She recalled watching her mother drop items
on the floor and walk away, leaving servants to clean up her mess.
“I wanted the world to be a just and fair place, and it
obviously wasn’t and that disturbed me right from the
beginning,” she said.

She became determined to fight for equality, and she encouraged
others to take up their own fights against inequality. She said
people who want to change the world don’t need to be part of a
large organized group, they just have to find a cause they believe
in and never stop fighting for it.

She credited that philosophy for helping her remain happy
despite the horrors she lived through as a young woman.

“I am happy because I found the balance between adjusting, or
surviving what I was put through, and acting for what I believed
in,” she said in 2002. “That’s the key.”


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