In Memoriam: Gerda Lerner (OAH President 1981-82)

February 20, 2013

Gerda Lerner, past president of the Organization of American Historians (1981-1982), and pioneer in women’s and gender history, passed away on January 2, 2013 at the age of 92.

The following remembrance of Gerda Lerner was prepared by Mari Jo Buhle, and appeared in the February 2013 issue of OAH Outlook.

Gerda Lerner, the second woman to serve as president of the Organization of American Historians, died on January 2, 2013, in Madison, Wisconsin, at age ninety two. Educated at the New School for Social Research and Columbia University (PhD, 1966), she worked ceaselessly to establish women’s history as a legitimate field of scholarship. As quoted by President Jimmy Carter in proclaiming the first National Women’s History Week, Lerner insisted that “women’s history is women’s right…an essential, indispensable heritage from which we can draw pride, comfort, courage, and long-range vision.” She determinedly lived by those words.

Lerner came to academic life, she wrote, “as a mature woman” and as a veteran political activist. Born Gerda Hedwig Kronstein in Vienna to a prosperous Jewish family, she worked with the communist underground before fleeing Austria in 1938. After settling in New York, she trained to become a medical technician. In 1941 she married Carl Lerner, an aspiring film editor and fellow left-winger, and moved with him to Hollywood. In 1949, to evade placement on the blacklist, they returned to New York, where Carl ultimately resumed his film career and Gerda combined community organizing with writing short stories, film adaptations, and the novel No Farewell (1955), which narrates the fascist advance in her native Austria. The screenplay for Black like Me (1964), written with Carl, expresses the depth of her antiracist sentiments and their Popular Front lineage.

Research for a historical novel about the lives of the southern abolitionists Sarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké piqued her interest in historical scholarship and dramatically changed the direction of her life. In 1958, at age 38 and as the mother of two children, she enrolled in college. By 1966 she had transformed her research into, first, a dissertation and, in the following year, The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels against Slavery (1967). Lerner applied her formidable skills to making scholarship in women’s history legitimate and accessible. Considered by many of her peers a true successor to Mary Beard, whose Woman as Force in History (1946) highlights women’s collective role in shaping history and culture, Lerner brought a sharply analytical eye to the past. Her path-breaking collection of documents, Black Women in White America (1972), offers stories of oppression but mainly of survival and community building. The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1994) magnify this theme across the entire span of historical development. She wrote self-reflectively about the practice of historical writing in two collections of essays, The Majority Finds Its Past (1979) and Why History Matters (1997). Her memoirs apply these principles to her own experiences. A Death of One’s Own (1978) narrates her husband’s death from a brain neoplasm; and Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (2002) covers her childhood and formative years in the United States. Her final autobiographical work, Living with History/Making Social Change (2009), reaffirms her desire to ensure a prominent place for women’s history within the scholarly mainstream.

A seasoned political activist who first rose to a position of influence through the left-leaning Congress of American Women in the late 1940s, Lerner later targeted the history profession itself. She attended her first convention of the OAH in 1963 and, struck by the predominance of men, decided to make room for women. In 1969 she became the first cochair of the Coordinating Committee on the Status of Women in the Historical Profession, which affiliated with the American Historical Association. Renamed the Council for Women in History in 1995, the organization embodies Lerner’s goals: to recruit women into the historical profession; to work against discrimination and inequity within the profession; and to promote research and teaching in women’s history.

At Sarah Lawrence College in the early 1970s, Lerner founded the first Master of Arts program in women’s history and served as its director until 1979. In 1980 she moved to the University of Wisconsin and established the first doctoral program in women’s history. Lerner also promoted women’s history in other venues. She worked with the National Project of Women’s History, which supplies curriculum to K–12 teachers. Lerner took great pride in her contributions to the development of the field. “The two aspects of my own consciousness, that of the citizen and that of the scholar,” she wrote in 1979, “had finally fused.” She had been an organizer since her teenage years and was, by the end of the 1970s, “a feminist scholar” ready to take on the presidency of the OAH, which she held from 1981 to 1982. She created the OAH Distinguished Lectureship Program in 1981. The Lerner-Scott Prize, granted annually by the OAH for the best dissertation in women’s history, is named in her honor and that of her contemporary, Anne Firor Scott.

Mari Jo Buhle is the William R. Kenan Jr. University Professor in History and American Civilization, emerita, at Brown University and an Honorary Fellow in the History Department at 
the University of Wisconsin–Madison.