Gerda Lerner was an American historian, author and the single most influential figure in the development of women’s and gender history since the 1960s.
Lerner was born Gerda Hedwig Kronstein in Vienna, Austria in 1920. She was the first child of the affluent Jewish couple Ilona (née Neumann), an artist and Robert Kronstein, a pharmacist. Lerner’s mother was an advocate of sexual freedom, vegetarianism and yoga. As a teenager, Lerner began to see her mother as a “victim of societal restrictions” and, due to the influence of teachers and friends discovered cultural and political radicalism. She began listening to jazz and reading modernist literature. She also became a devotée of anti-fascist satirist Karl Kraus.
Lerner was young when Hitler began his rise to power. In 1934 a virtual civil war broke out in Vienna, between Nazis and leftist workers. The fighting happened so close to her home that she could hear the fire of machine-guns. At 15, Lerner began seeing a boy whom her father disapproved of which only strengthened her desire for him, his older brother was fighting fascism in Spain. Lerner began to get involved in reading and distributing left newspapers and leaflets, she also volunteered for Red Aid which worked to help the families of those who had been exiled and arrested. In 1936, Lerner was sent to England to separate her from her ‘dangerous’ friends and learn English. She was sent to a family of anti-Semites and soon left to join a youth camp run in Wales by the eminent scientist and Communist J B S Haldane, where she learnt about Marxism.
After the Anschluss of March 1938, Lerner became involved with the anti-Nazi resistance leading her to her spending six weeks, including her 18th birthday in an Austrian jail. She does not think that she would have survived if her Communist cellmates had not shared their food with her. Lerner believed that these experiences as a Nazi resister and imprisoned teenager were the most formative influences of her life. In 1939, Lerner immigrated alone to the United States sponsored by the family of her fiance, Bobby Jensen. Her marriage did not last long and she divorced Jensen and married filmmaker Carl Lerner and the couple moved to Hollywood where she began writing on anti-fascist themes. In 1943 she became a U.S. citizen.
In 1946, Lerner helped found the L.A. chapter of the Congress of American Women, a Communist front organisation. She was influenced by Communist theorists of male chauvinism, such as Mary Inman. Lerner worked with poor black women which enabled her to form an understanding of the limitations of her own middle-class assumptions. She also engaged in CPUSA activities involving trade unionism, civil rights, and anti-militarism. Lerner and her husband suffered under the rise of McCarthyism. Carl Lerner’s career was destroyed by the Hollywood blacklists and the family moved to New York and distanced themselves from the Communist past, choosing to focus their attention on the struggle for civil rights. Lerner enrolled at the New School for Social Research, graduating with a bachelors degree in 1963. That same year, she began offering the first regular college course in women’s history. She continued her studies at Columbia University, gaining an M.A and Ph.D. Her doctoral dissertation was published as The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (1967)
In 1966, Lerner became a founding member of the National Organisation for Women (NOW) and she briefly served as a local and national leader. In 1968 she began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College and four years later the College began offering a Master of Arts Program in Women’s History, founded by Lerner. It was the first American graduate degree in the field. Lerner devoted the rest of her life to women’s and African American history, she brought together a relentless focus on power and a grasp of the interrelatedness of its various forms—class, race, and sex. Throughout the 60s and 70s, Lerner published books and articles which helped establish women’s history as a recognised field of study including “The Lady and the Mill Girl” (1969) which showed an analysis of class in women’s history. She was the first to bring a feminist viewpoint to the study of history, one her most important work was the documentary anthologies Black Women in White America 1972. The book was written as a response to the fact that Lerner could not find either books nor articles that focused on black women. It detailed 350 years of black women being treated as property and describes the long term effects of the slave past. It was one of the first books to detail the contributions of black women in women’s history.
In 1979, Lerner chaired The Women’s History Institute, a 15 day conference at Sarah Lawrence College, co-sponsored by Sarah Lawrence, the Women’s Action Alliance, and the Smithsonian Institution. The event was attended by leaders of national organisations for women and girls. The event shared the success of the Women’s History Week celebrated in Sonoma County and lead to the the establishment of Women’s History Month. In 1980, Lerner established the nation’s first Ph.D. program in women’s history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. While at the University, she wrote her the two volumes Creation of Patriarchy and Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1986 and 1993). The former detailed her conviction that patriarchy was the first and ultimate source of all oppression and the latter traces the roots of patriarchal dominance back to two millennia.
Lerner served as president of the Organisation of American Historians from 1981 – 1982 and as an educational director for the organisation, she helped made women’s history accessible to leaders of women’s organisations and high school teachers. In 1986 Lerner won the American Historical Association’s Joan Kelly Prize in recognition of her work on the roots of women’s oppression and in 1998, she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was also the recipient of Austria’s highest prize, the Cross of Honour for Science and Art.
Lerner was a pioneer of women’s history and her groundbreaking efforts and theories in the field of American history have helped to advance the study of history by demanded that women’s roles, contributions and experiences be studied and celebrated. Lerner 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. Lerner died on January 2, 2013, in Madison, Wisconsin at age 92.