No Ordinary Hero: Women’s Studies Pioneer Gerda Lerner Dies

Historian Gerda Lerner created new space for forgotten stories about women leaders, activists and ordinary citizens. She died January 2, 2013.

From the Washington Post obituary:

“Gerda Lerner spent her 18th birthday in a Nazi prison, sharing a cell with two gentile women arrested for political work who shared their food with the Jewish teenager because jailers restricted rations for Jews.

Lerner would say years later that the women taught her during those six weeks how to survive and that the experience taught her how society can manipulate people. It was a lesson that the women’s history pioneer, who died Wednesday at age 92, said she saw reinforced in American academia by history professors who taught as though only the men were worth studying.

“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, Lerner told the Wisconsin Academic Review in 2002.

The author was a founding member of the National Organization for Women and is credited with creating the nation’s first graduate program in women’s history, in the 1970s in New York.

Her son said she died peacefully of apparent old age at an assisted-living facility in Madison, where she helped establish a doctoral program in women’s history at the University of Wisconsin.

“She was always a very strong-willed and opinionated woman,” her son, Dan Lerner, told The Associated Press late Thursday. “I think those are the hallmarks of great people, people that have strong points of view and firmly held convictions.”

How does a leader find her vision, learn to lead? Seemingly small things form us.

Lerner announcing her 2002 autobiography,  Photo by Sara Tewes, AP

Lerner announcing her 2002 autobiography, Photo by Sara Tewes, AP

In her autobiography, Lerner said of her time in Nazi Prison, that the two gentile women imprisoned with her “taught me how to survive. ‘’Everything I needed to get through the rest of my life I learned in jail in those six weeks.”

These lessons served her well. Here’s a list of her publications, evidence of her persistence and vision.

Musical

Screenplays

  • Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom (1957)
  • Black Like Me (1964)
  • Home for Easter (n.d.)

Books

  • No Farewell (1955) an autobiographical novel
  • The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels against Authority (1967)
  • The Woman in American History [ed.] (1971)
  • Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (1972)
  • The Female Experience: An American Documentary (1976)
  • A Death of One’s Own (1978/2006)
  • The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (1979)
  • Teaching Women’s History (1981)
  • Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey (1982)
  • The Creation of Patriarchy (1986)
  • The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy (1994)
  • Scholarship in Women’s History Rediscovered & New (1994)
  • Why History Matters (1997)
  • Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (Temple University Press, 2003)

And that doesn’t really track her accomplishments — as a teacher, political activist, academic innovator and mentor, she made a difference in the lives of the people who knew her, and the people who knew greater possibilities because of her.

We can look to Lerner as an authentic leader who lived her life with curiousity, discipline, passion and intelligence. In her autobiography she wrote: “The quest for living an honest life, a conscious life, has driven me since my adolescence.” Her own search taught those of us who care about justice, women’s history, and human excellence to drive ourselves forward with the same goal. She taught us to map and appreciate a world that had been, to historians and in patriarchal culture, largely invisible. She wrote:

“Everything that explains the world has in fact explained a world that does not exist, a world in which men are at the center of the human enterprise and women are at the margin “helping” them. Such a world does not exist–never has.”

As a leader in the still new (although now strong and established) field of women’s history, she taught us to pay attention to the power of the stories we learn and repeat as history. She famously wrote:  “What we do about history matters. The often repeated saying that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them has a lot of truth in it. But what are ‘the lessons of history’? The very attempt at definition furnishes ground for new conflicts. History is not a recipe book; past events are never replicated in the present in quite the same way. Historical events are infinitely variable and their interpretations are a constantly shifting process. There are no certainties to be found in the past.”

I’m grateful for her legacy.

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