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Gerda Lerner, Presente!

Women's studies pioneer fought to bring our history to light

January 4, 2013
Gerda Lerner, photographed in 2001

Gerda Lerner, the pioneer of women’s studies who made history as she fought to bring our history to light, has passed away. Gerda Lerner was a scholar, a historian and an activist who made it her life’s mission to bring women’s studies to the forefront in an academic world that was overwhelmingly dominated by men.  Of her early academic experiences, Lerner told the Chicago Tribune: “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… 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.” 

The world in which she lived

Lerner shook up the academic world with her refusal to accept the marginalization of women and the oppressed. She fought back against the status quo that denied half the population any sense of their history. Her remarkable personal history shows that she was a fighter from her very early years.

She was born in Vienna, Austria in 1920 and joined the Communist resistance against the Nazis as a teenager. She spent her eighteenth birthday in an Austrian jail. She has since written extensively about her experience during the short but devastating six-week stay in a Nazi jail cell with other young women who were socialist political prisoners. She was forced to flee to the United States in 1939.

Once in the US, like many young immigrant women, Lerner took a series of working class jobs as a waitress, salesperson, office clerk and more. The NYT reports: “As a saleswoman at a Fifth Avenue candy store, she was fired after she reported her employers to the Labor Department for paying their factory workers less than the minimum wage.”

She met her husband Carl Lerner, who was an active member of the Communist Party USA, in 1941. Together the two were involved in grassroots activism on a number of issues including the struggle for labor rights, civil rights and anti-militarism.  

The academic struggle

In 1963 Lerner began attending classes at the New School. While still an undergraduate, she taught one of the first women’s history courses in the nation, “Great Women in American History”. She received her PhD at Columbia University in 1966, with her dissertation entitled The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (1967).  This work, her first publication, was not just about women, but about the role of women in the struggle against racist oppression.  

In 1969 she wrote The Lady and the Mill Girl, an important early analysis of the issues of class in women’s history. In 1972 she published Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, a groundbreaking work chronicling the oppression, exploitation and the resistance of Black women in the United States over 350 years. Throughout her career Lerner published many monumental works such as The Female Experience (1976), The Majority Finds Its Past (1979), Why History Matters (1997), The Creation of Patriarchy (1986), and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993).  

Gerda Lerner spearheaded the creation of the nation’s very first graduate degree program in women’s studies in 1972 at Sarah Lawrence College, where she was a professor at the time. In 1980, Lerner created the first PhD program in women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was also a founding member of the National Organization for Women.  

Lerner entered the world of academia with the fearlessness and a fighting spirit that marked her entire life.  She is a feminist pioneer who understood the crucial intersection between issues of class and race and feminism. She was committed to equality, not just in study, but in deed. She is a heroine to all those who believe in justice and equality and who are willing to fight for it in every arena. Gerda Lerner – presente!