Lerner, Gerda (1920—)

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Lerner, Gerda (1920—)

Influential American historian who is considered responsible for the establishment of women's history as a recognized academic field. Born Gerda Kronstein on April 30, 1920, in Vienna, Austria; daughter of Robert Kronstein and Ilona (Neumann) Kronstein; New School for Social Research, B.A., 1963; Columbia University, M.A., 1965, Ph.D., 1966; married Carl Lerner, in 1941 (died 1973); children: Stephanie Lerner; Daniel Lerner.

Arrived in the United States (1939); published first book (1955); created first women's history department in U.S. (1972); established first doctoral program in same field (c. 1980).

Selected writings:

No Farewell (1955); The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (1967); The Woman in American History (1971); Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (1972); Women Are History: A Bibliography in the History of American Women (1975, revised ed., 1986); A Death of One's Own (1978); Women and History, Volume 1: The Creation of Patriarchy (1986); Women and History, Volume 2: The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to 1870 (Oxford University Press, 1993); Why History Matters (Oxford University Press, 1997).

The name Gerda Lerner may not possess the recognition factor of Gloria Steinem or Barbara Tuchman , but her work as a feminist historian is both unparalleled and equally significant. Since the 1960s, she has been a trailblazer in establishing the field of women's history as an academic discipline; she may have taught the first postwar college class on women's history, and her books have become important texts that have provided her successors with contextual maps for uncharted territory.

Lerner was born Gerda Kronstein in 1920 in Vienna, Austria, into a prosperous and educated family. Her mother Ilona Neumann Kronstein was a painter, but her parents' marriage was less than happy; although they cohabitated, they remained emotionally distant from one another for years. They were of Jewish heritage, but Lerner herself was usually assumed to be gentile because of her fair looks. When Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany in 1938, her life changed dramatically, and she later recounted in her 1978 nonfiction work A Death of One's Own that a young man near her own age, whom she did not particularly like, simply disappeared one day just weeks after they had celebrated a Jewish holiday together with their families. His parents were sent a note that informed them they could pick up his ashes for a fee at a certain address.

Though her family managed to flee Austria itself just before the situation became pogromlike in November of 1938, Lerner was the only one who obtained a visa for the United States. When she sailed in 1939, she knew that her mother, father, and sister would not be able to leave Europe, and she cried the entire six days of the sea voyage. She never saw her parents again, though they did survive the war, unlike some other members of their families. In 1941, Gerda married Carl Lerner and devoted herself to raising her children and doing writing and translation work. Early on, she developed an interest in women's lives, recalling her mother's plight and early death from multiple sclerosis. As Lerner later wrote in A Death of One's Own, her mother was an artistically gifted but temperamental person, who in another era might have flourished.

Lerner's first book, the novel No Farewell, was published in 1955. She returned to school and earned a B.A. from New York's New School for Social Research in 1963. She then went on to earn both an M.A. and a Ph.D in history from Columbia University in just three years. She embarked upon a career as an academic, and is considered to have taught the first women's history class in the postwar era. Teaching jobs included stints at the New School, Sarah Lawrence College, and Long Island University. In 1972, she created the first-ever women's history department in the United States at Sarah Lawrence College, where she taught until 1980. Lerner's next accomplishment was to create the first doctoral program in women's history at the progressive University of Wisconsin at Madison. She remained there as the school's Robinson-Edwards Professor of History, then was named professor emerita.

Lerner is the author of several significant works in her field. Her 1972 tome Black Women in White America: A Documentary History was groundbreaking for its academic exploration of what was at that time uncharted historical territory. One of its important contributions to multicultural feminist scholarship is its discussion of the lingering ramifications of slavery. In her other books, Lerner has sought to explain how and why "men's" history is different from women's history: the former has milestones and divisions that are not pertinent to the latter. In her precedent-setting two-volume work Women and History, Lerner delves into the prehistoric era in the first volume, The Creation of Patriarchy (1986), to question how male-dominated societies, where women had little legal or economic power, arose and maintained hegemony. In the second volume, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, From the Middle Ages to 1870 (1993), Lerner posits that women in history were virtually invisible for a very long period, and that the lack of a collective consciousness allowed patriarchy to flourish. In her works, however, Lerner gives equal access to the ideas that race and class also shape destiny, not just gender; this is the result of her experiences in a suddenly Nazi-occupied Austria, where she went from being a middle-class young woman to someone described as "vermin."

Her memoir, A Death of One's Own, actually chronicles the 1973 death of her husband Carl from a brain tumor. Lerner uses notes, poetry, diary entries, and memories of her childhood in

Austria to connect events. She writes of her husband's courage, their children, the team of doctors, an indifferent medical system, the loss of friends, his chemotherapy, and simply the tough, daily difficulties of dealing with medication and a paralyzed husband whose illness is terminal.

Gerda Lerner was a founding member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and in 1976 was instrumental in having March declared Women's History Month. She later served as the president of the Organization of American Historians and was named senior distinguished research professor by the University of Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation in 1984. She is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1976) and the Ford Foundation (1978–79); in 1992, Gerda Lerner was honored with a scholarly distinction award from the American Historical Association.


Contemporary Authors, New Revisions Series. Vol. 45. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1995.

Lerner, Gerda. A Death of One's Own. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan