[Marxism] Gerda Lerner, Pioneering Feminist and Historian, Dies at 92
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Thu Jan 3 14:19:08 MST 2013
NY Times January 3, 2013
Gerda Lerner, Pioneering Feminist and Historian, Dies at 92
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Gerda Lerner, a scholar and author who helped make the study of women
and their lives a legitimate subject for historians and spearheaded the
creation of the first graduate program in women’s history in the United
States, died on Wednesday in Madison, Wis. She was 92.
Her death, at an assisted living facility, was confirmed by Steve J.
Stern, a history professor and friend at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison, where Ms. Lerner had taught many years.
In the mid-1960s, armed with a doctorate in history from Columbia
University and a dissertation on two abolitionist sisters from South
Carolina, Ms. 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
“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,” Ms. 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.”
That picture changed rapidly, in large part because of her efforts while
teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in the early 1970s. In creating a
graduate program there, Ms. Lerner set about trying to establish women’s
history as an academic discipline and to raising the status of women in
the historical profession. She also began gathering and publishing the
primary source material — diaries, letters, speeches and so on — that
would allow historians to reconstruct the lives of women.
“She made it happen,” said Alice Kessler-Harris, a history professor at
Columbia. “She established women’s history as not just a valid but a
central area of scholarship. If you look at any library today, you will
see hundreds of books on the subject.”
Gerda Hedwig Kronstein was born on April 30, 1920, in Vienna, where her
father, Robert, owned a large pharmacy. Her mother, the former Ilona
Neumann, a free-spirited Bohemian at heart, tried unsuccessfully to
reconcile her budding career as an artist with her duties as a housewife
and mother. This struggle made a marked impression on her daughter.
Immediately after Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Ms. Lerner’s father,
a Jew, was tipped off that he was about to be arrested. As a hedge, he
had started a pharmacy in Lichtenstein, and there he fled, whereupon the
Gestapo arrested his wife and daughter to force his return. Five weeks
later, after he sold his Austrian assets for a nominal sum, his wife and
daughter were released and left for Lichtenstein as well.
“It was the most important experience of my life, because I didn’t think
that I was going to come out alive,” Ms. Lerner told The Chicago Tribune
A more thorough investigation by the Gestapo might have revealed that
their young prisoner had been doing underground work for the Communists
for several years.
Through a marriage of convenience, Gerda Kronstein made her way to New
York, where she worked in menial jobs and trained at Sydenham Hospital
in Harlem as an X-ray technician. 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.
In 1941 she married Carl Lerner, a theater director and Communist who
helped her polish her halting English by having her repeat
tongue-twisters like “Mae West is wearing a vest.” The couple moved to
Hollywood, where Mr. Lerner became an apprentice film editor.
Ms. Lerner placed a short story based on her jail experience,
“Prisoners,” in the Clipper, a liberal literary journal, joined the
Communist Party and began working with community groups to organize
supermarket boycotts and neighborhood child care centers.
“I was unduly intense, super-serious, incapable of small talk or the
kind of friendly gossip that hold acquaintances together,” she wrote in
“Fireweed: A Political Autobiography” (2002). “My perfectionism,
insistence on anti-fascist commitment in word and deed, and general
‘heaviness’ as a person set me apart from others.”
Because of his politics, Mr. Lerner found it increasingly hard to find
work in Hollywood, so in 1949 the couple returned to New York, where he
became a top film editor, working on “Twelve Angry Men,” “Requiem for a
Heavyweight” “Klute” and other films. In 1964, the two collaborated on
the film “Black Like Me,” based on the 1961 book by the Southern white
journalist John Howard Griffin that recounted his experiences disguised
as a black man in the Deep South. Mr. Lerner directed and together they
helped adapt the book for film.
Mr. Lerner died in 1973 after a long illness that Ms. Lerner wrote about
in “A Death of One’s Own” (1978). Her survivors include a sister, Nora
Kronstein; a daughter, Stephanie Lerner; a son, Dan; and four grandchildren.
Ms. Lerner, with great difficulty, found a publisher for “No Farewell”
(1955), a novel about the coming of fascism to Austria, but by the late
1950s she faced uncertain prospects as a writer. With thoughts of
writing a historical novel, she began researching the lives of Sarah and
Angelina Grimké, daughters of a wealthy plantation owner, who traveled
throughout the United States proselytizing for the American Anti-Slavery
The novel never materialized, but her research led to a new career. She
began taking history courses at the New School for Social Research,
where, while still an undergraduate, she taught “Great Women in American
History.” It was one of the first courses ever given in the United
States on women’s history.
After earning her bachelor’s degree from the New School in 1963, Ms.
Lerner enrolled at Columbia, her work on the Grimké sisters in hand, to
study women’s history. Bending the rules, the university allowed her to
complete her master’s and doctorate in three years. In 1967, she
published “The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery.”
At Sarah Lawrence, where she began teaching history in 1968, she was the
driving force behind what is widely credited as the first graduate
program in women’s history in the United States, established in 1972.
At the same time, after writing the textbook “The Woman in American
History” (1971), Ms. Lerner began gathering documentary material that
would allow other scholars to write women’s history. Her material was
published in two important sourcebooks, “Black Women in White America: A
Documentary History” (1972) and “The Female Experience: Documents in
American History” (1976).
In 1980 she joined the history department at Wisconsin-Madison, where
she created the university’s doctoral program in women’s history. She
retired from Wisconsin in 1991.In 1981 she became the first woman in 50
years to be elected president of the Organization of American
Historians. The Lerner-Scott Prize, named in honor of her and Anne Firor
Scott, another pioneer in women’s history, has been given annually since
1992 for the best doctoral dissertation on women’s history in the United
Ms. Lerner wrote two ambitious studies on women and society: “The
Creation of Patriarchy” (1986) and “The Creation of Feminist
Consciousness” (1997). Many of her essays were collected in “The
Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History” (1979) and “Why
History Matters” (1997).
“I want women’s history to be legitimate, to be part of every curriculum
on every level,” she wrote in “Living With History/Making Social Change”
(2009), a collection of autobiographical essays. “I want people to be
able to take Ph.D.’s in the subject and not have to say they are doing
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.
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