Lerner, Gerda Kronstein

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LERNER, GERDA KRONSTEIN (1920– ), founder of the modern field of women's history. Born in Vienna, Lerner grew up in a well-to-do assimilated family, the daughter of a businessman father and an artist mother. She studied at a private Gymnasium for girls, run by a Jewish director, and enrolled in a Sabbath School to prepare for her confirmation. However, concerned about the synagogue's attitudes toward women congregants and its treatment of the poor, she decided not to participate in the ceremony. After the Nazis came to power, she became involved in the underground resistance movement. Arrested and imprisoned, she was released after her father signed over his property and business to the Nazis. Lerner left Europe in 1939, the only one of her family to secure a visa for the United States. Although her parents survived the war, she never saw them again.

As a young émigré, Lerner worked as a waitress, salesgirl, office clerk, and x-ray technician, all the while writing fiction and poetry; she published two short stories providing a first-person account of the horrors of Nazi occupation. She married Carl Lerner, who became an acclaimed film editor and director, and raised two children. In 1951, she collaborated with poet Eve Merriam on a musical, The Singing of Women. Her novel, No Farewell, appeared in 1955; with her husband, she wrote the script for Black Like Me. Committed Communists, the Lerners were involved in numerous grassroots activities involving trade unionism, civil rights, and anti-militarism; they struggled against McCarthyism, especially the Hollywood blacklist.

Lerner returned to school in the late 1950s, receiving a B.A. from the New School for Social Research in 1963 and her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1966; her dissertation became her first publication, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (1967). She taught at Long Island University in Brooklyn and at Sarah Lawrence College, where she initiated an influential master's program in women's history in 1972. In 1980, Lerner created the nation's first Ph.D. program in women's history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she became professor emerita.

Lerner was among the first to bring a consciously feminist lens to the study of history, producing enormously influential essays and books. Among her most important works are the documentary anthologies, Black Women in White America (1972) and The Female Experience (1976); the essay collections, The Majority Finds Its Past (1979) and Why History Matters (1997); The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993). She published Fireweed: A Political Autobiography in 2002. Lerner was a founding member of the National Organization for Women and the first woman in 50 years to become president of the Organization of American Historians, which named the Gerda Lerner-Ann Scott Prize for the best women's history dissertation in her honor.

[Joyce Antler (2nd ed.)]

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