History’s Rebel Girls – Gerda Lerner

Historian and activist Gerda Lerner can be credited with making women’s and gender history a recognised research subject.

Lerner said, when she started working on women’s history in the 1960’s, the field did not exist. It was not a recognised area of research, and according to Lerner, people didn’t think women had a history worth knowing. Her professors thought she was wasting her talents pursuing an exotic specialty.

‘Men develop ideas and systems of explanation by absorbing past knowledge and critiquing and superseding it. Women, ignorant of their own history [do] not know what women before them had thought and taught. So generation after generation, they [struggle] for insights others had already had before them, [resulting in] the constant inventing of the wheel.’

Gerda Lerner was born in 1920 in Vienna, Austria. Following Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938, Lerner, whose father was Jewish, fled her home country to live in New York. In 1941 she married theatre director and Communist Carl Lerner, and the couple moved to Hollywood where they worked as writers and editors in the film industry. Lerner joined the Communist Party and began to be politically active by working with community groups.

During the infamous blacklistings of Communists in the McCarthy era, the Lerners were unable to find work in Hollywood due to their association with the Communist Party. They moved back to New York in 1949 with their two children and at the age of 38 Gerda enrolled in college. She took history courses at the New School for Social Research and even taught as an undergraduate one of the first ever courses on women’s history in the US.

After earning her BA, Lerner went to Columbia where she completed a PhD dissertation on the Grimké sisters — white abolitionists who were children of South Carolina slaveholders and well known antislavery activists of their era as well as early women’s-rights advocates. At that time, only one other historian was working on the 19th century women’s rights movement.

At Sarah Lawrence College, where Lerner started teaching in 1968, she was instrumental in developing the first graduate programme in women’s history in the United States (established in 1972). She also published several important textbooks on women’s history during that time – The Woman in American History (1971), Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (1972) and The Female Experience: Documents in American History (1976). Lerner’s career was devoted to women’s and African American history, focusing on power not only in relation to gender but also in relation to class and race.

From 1980-91 she taught at the University of Wisconsin where she developed the university’s first postgraduate programme in women’s history. Lerner was the first woman in 50 years to be elected president of the Organisation of American Historians. In that role, she helped to broaden access to women’s history and scholarship in the field.

Her work championing women’s history culminated in the publication of two books, Creation of Patriarchy and Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1986 & 1993). These two volumes, utilising historical, archaeological, cultural and social evidence, are ambitious global studies investigating if patriarchy was a natural phenomenon or something that was created by mankind. She concluded that women’s subordination to men was a historical development which became institutionalised even before western civilisation as we know it came into existence.

‘The system of patriarchy is a historic construct; it has a beginning; it will have an end. Its time seems to have nearly run its course—it no longer serves the needs of men or women and in its inextricable linkage to militarism, hierarchy, and racism it threatens the very existence of life on earth. What will come after, what kind of structure will be the foundation for alternate forms of social organisation we cannot yet know. We are living in an age of unprecedented transformation. We are in the process of becoming.’

In her later years, Gerda Lerner witnessed with disappointment growing inequality, religious fundamentalism, the rise of xenophobia and racism throughout the world. However, social movements such as Arab Spring and Occupy gave her hope for the future. She died in 2013, leaving an invaluable legacy to the field of women’s history.

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