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Lerner, Gerda (1920–) - U.S. Women’s History

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One of the founders of the field of women’s history, Gerda Lerner was born in Vienna, Austria, on April 30, 1920. As a child she attended the Red Gymnasium. Her father, Robert Kronstein, was a pharmacist, and her mother, Ilona Neumann Kronstein, was an artist. Six weeks before her college entrance exams, Lerner was put in jail. Her father, fearing the Nazi executioners, had fled the country, and Gerda now feared her own death because of her participation in the resistance movement. Lerner was released from prison, however, and took her college entrance exams the very next day.

Lerner worked before attending college, as a governess in Europe and then as an office worker, waitress, sales clerk, and x-ray technician in the United States. She attended the New School for Social Research, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1963. While a college student, she realized that the history of Western civilization had largely ignored the lives and stories of women. She decided to pursue graduate work in this largely unexplored area, she later recalled, “to make women’s history respectable.” Lerner then attended Columbia University, where she completed a master’s degree in 1965 and a Ph.D. in 1966. Women’s history, a field she helped define and promote as well as make respectable, is, as she argued, “an absolute lifeline to self-recognition and to giving our life meaning.”

From 1963 to 1965 Lerner was lecturer at the New School for Social Research. She taught at Long Island University from 1965 to 1968, first as assistant and then as associate professor. Lerner accepted a position as associate professor at Sarah Lawrence College in 1968, and she stayed there until 1980, serving as the director of the master’s program in women’s history from 1972 to 1976 and again from 1978 to 1979. She left Sarah Lawrence to join the faculty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, retiring from there as Robinson-Edwards Professor of History and Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation Senior Distinguished Research Professor. She also directed the graduate program in women’s history at the University of Wisconsin from 1981 to 1990. As professor emerita Lerner continues her work, lecturing, writing, and editing, among other things, an eleven-volume work titled Scholarship in Women’s History, Rediscovered and New , for Carlson Publishing Company.

Lerner’s first work of history, The Grimké Sisters of South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery , was originally a novel based on historical events. However, when she enrolled in the graduate program at Columbia University, Lerner decided to make it a historical biography. As an immigrant, she often felt outside the mainstream experience in the United States; this feeling manifests itself in Lerner’s explorations of others outside the mainstream, both black and white women. Her Black Women in White America , published in 1972, paved the way for the study of black women’s history in the United States. Several of her books have won significant awards. The Creation of Patriarchy won the Joan Kelly Prize of the American Historical Association, and Judith Bennett has called the second volume of her overview of women and history, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness , an “invaluable contribution to the development of women’s history.” In another review, Ellen DuBois writes, “More of our careers should culminate in such learned and ambitious efforts.”

Since her graduate school days, Gerda Lerner has been dedicated to the development of women’s history as a field. She was determined, with that goal in mind, to making accessible the documents about women’s lives that were “disorganized, uncatalogued, and not infrequently rotting in file boxes in basement storage rooms.” Lerner, along with fellow pathbreaker in women’s history Anne Firor Scott and several others, initiated a project to conduct a survey of historical archives in every state to identify holdings pertaining to women. After a mail survey to which they received responses from 7,000 repositories, they compiled a two-volume reference tool, Women’s History Sources: A Guide to Archives and Manuscript Collections in the United States .

Lerner has served as president of the Organization of American Historians. She has received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the American Association of University Women. She is also the recipient of eight honorary degrees. She has been honored most recently by the publication of U.S. History as Women’s History: New Feminist Essays , edited by Linda Kerber, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Kathryn Kish Sklar. A tribute to Lerner and her influence on succeeding generations of historians of women, the collection highlights the work of those who have learned from Lerner and then taken the field in new directions.

Gerda Lerner is a widow. She has two children and four grandchildren. Her hobbies include gardening and other outdoor activities. Aside from her scholarly publications, she has published two literary books and written a screenplay.

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