Gerda Lerner, a scholar and author who pioneered the creation of women's studies as an academic discipline, has died on Wednesday in Madison, Wisconsin. She was 92.
The New York Times writes:
In the mid-1960s, armed with a doctorate in history from Columbia University and a dissertation on two abolitionist sisters from South Carolina, Dr. Lerner entered an academic world in which women’s history scarcely existed. The number of historians interested in the subject, she told The New York Times in 1973, “could have fit into a telephone booth.”
“In my courses, 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,” Dr. Lerner told The Chicago Tribune in 1993. “I asked myself how this checked against my own life experience. ‘This is garbage; this is not the world in which I have lived,’ I said.”
Gerda Hedwig Kronstein was born on April 30, 1920, in Vienna to a pharmacist father and 'bohemian' mother. As a Jewish teenager in Austria in 1938, she and her mother were imprisoned by the Nazis in a bid to pressure her father to return after fleeing to Lichtenstein.
"Everything I needed to get through the rest of my life I learned in jail in those six weeks," Lerner told the State Journal in 2001. "They taught me how to survive."
Lerner was married to theater director and notable Communist Carl Lerner (d. 1973), with whom she worked to unionize the film industry and in the U.S. civil rights movement.
In 1966, Lerner joined fellow activists Betty Friedan, Pauli Murray, Aileen Hernandez, and others in founding the National Organization for Women (NOW).
After completing her doctorate, Lerner moved on to Sarah Lawrence College, where she founded the first graduate program in women’s history in 1972. Reportedly, she encouraged her first students to lobby Congress for the creation of Women's History Week, which eventually became a month-long observance.
In 1980, she began teaching at the University of Wisconsin and remains as Professor of History Emerita. At Wisconsin, she established a Ph.D. program in women’s history and continued to help similar fledgling programs at universities throughout the country.
"Her whole life, in a way, was an effort to make visible the invisible—and to honor it," writes Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive.
“I was part of the invisible, first in the underground as an anti-fascist, then as an immigrant, then as a leftwing radical,” she says. “My life experience was counter to the mythology.”
Of her passing, the National Women's History Museum writes:
Gerda Lerner’s groundbreaking efforts and theories in the field of American history have helped to advance the study of history in the second half of the 20th century. By demanding that attention be paid to the study of women’s roles, contributions, and experiences in society, she has contributed to the successes of the feminist movement, the struggle for gender and racial equality in the United States, and the diversification and development of historical research.
All human beings are practicing historians. We live our lives; we tell our stories. It is as natural as breathing.—Gerda Lerner, 1920-2013