Gerda Lerner

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Gerda Lerner
UW-Madison history professor Gerda Lerner.jpg
UW-Madison portrait, 1981
Born Gerda Hedwig Kronstein
(1920-04-30)April 30, 1920
Vienna, Austria
Died January 2, 2013(2013-01-02) (aged 92)
Madison, Wisconsin
Nationality American
Education New School for Social Research (A.B.), Columbia University (M.A.) and (Ph.D.)
Spouse(s) Carl Lerner

Gerda Hedwig Lerner (April 30, 1920 – January 2, 2013) was an Austrian-born American historian and author. In addition to her numerous scholarly publications, she wrote poetry, fiction, theater pieces, screenplays, and an autobiography. She served as president of the Organization of American Historians in 1980-81 and in 1980 was appointed Robinson Edwards Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she taught until retiring in 1991.

Lerner was one of the founders of the field of women's history. In 1963, while still an undergraduate at the New School for Social Research, she taught "Great Women in American History", which is considered to be the first regular college course on women's history offered anywhere.[1] She also taught at Long Island University from 1965 to 1967. She played a key role in the development of women's history curricula and was involved in the development of degree programs in women's history at Sarah Lawrence College (where she taught from 1968 to 1979 and established the nation's first master's degree program in women's history) and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she launched the first Ph.D. program in women's history. She also worked at Duke University and Columbia University, where she was a co-founder of the Seminar on Women.

Early life

Gerda Lerner was born Gerda Hedwig Kronstein in Vienna, Austria, on April 30, 1920, the first child of Ilona (née Neumann) and Robert Kronstein, an affluent Jewish couple. Her father was a pharmacist, her mother an artist with whom Gerda, according to her autobiography, had a strained relationship. Following the 1938 Anschluss, she was involved with the anti-Nazi resistance and spent six weeks, including her eighteenth birthday, in an Austrian jail, occupying a cell with two gentile women held on political grounds who shared their food because Jews received restricted rations.[2][3] Her family was able to emigrate from Austria, since her father had opened a branch of the family business in Liechtenstein, where he stayed. Her mother moved to France, and Lerner's sister relocated to Palestine. In 1939, Gerda immigrated to the United States under the sponsorship of the family of her fiance, Bobby Jensen, a socialist.[4]


Settling in New York, Gerda Jensen held jobs as a waitress, salesperson, office clerk, and x-ray technician while also writing fiction and poetry. She published two short stories providing a first-person account of the Nazi annexation of Austria. Her marriage with Jensen was failing when she met Carl Lerner (1912-1973), a married theater director who was a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). They both obtained divorces in Reno so that they could marry and then moved to Hollywood, where Carl pursued a career in film-making.[5] In 1946, Gerda Lerner helped found the L.A. chapter of the Congress of American Women, a Communist front organization. The Lerners engaged in CPUSA activities involving trade unionism, civil rights, and anti-militarism, and they suffered under the rise of McCarthyism, especially the Hollywood blacklist.

In 1951, she collaborated with poet Eve Merriam on a musical, The Singing of Women. Her novel No Farewell appeared in 1955. Lerner enrolled at the New School for Social Research, where she received the bachelor's degree in 1963. Also in 1963, she offered the first regular college course in women's history.[6] With her husband, Gerda Lerner coauthored the screenplay of his film Black Like Me (1964).[7] She continued with graduate studies at Columbia University, where she earned both the M.A. (1965) and Ph.D. (1966). Her doctoral dissertation was published as The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (1967). In 1966, Lerner became a founding member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and she served as a local and national leader for a short period. In 1968, she received her first academic appointment at Sarah Lawrence College. In 1972, Sarah Lawrence College began offering a Master of Arts Program in Women’s History, founded by Lerner, that was the first American graduate degree in the field.[8] She also taught at Long Island University in Brooklyn.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Lerner published scholarly books and articles that helped establish women's history as a recognized field of study. Her 1969 article "The Lady and the Mill Girl: Changes in the Status of Women in the Age of Jackson", published in the journal American Studies, was an early and influential example of class analysis in women's history. She was among the first to bring a consciously feminist lens to the study of history. Among her most important works are the documentary anthologies Black Women in White America (1972) and The Female Experience (1976) along with her essay collection, The Majority Finds Its Past (1979).

In 1979, she chaired The Women's History Institute, a fifteen-day conference (July 13–29) at Sarah Lawrence College, co-sponsored by Sarah Lawrence, the Women's Action Alliance, and the Smithsonian Institution, which was attended by leaders of national organizations for women and girls. When the Institute participants learned about the success of the Women's History Week celebrated in Sonoma County, they decided to initiate similar celebrations within their own organizations, communities, and school districts. They also agreed to support an effort to secure a "National Women's History Week."[9][10] This all helped lead to the establishment of Women's History Month.[9][10]

In 1980, Lerner established the nation's first Ph.D. program in women's history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she wrote The Creation of Patriarchy (1986), The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993), Why History Matters (1997), and Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (2002). From 1981 to 1982 she served as president of the Organization of American Historians.[11] As an educational director for the organization, she helped make women's history accessible to leaders of women's organizations and high school teachers.[12] She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998.[13] In 1986 Lerner won the American Historical Association's Joan Kelly Prize in recognition of her work on the roots of women's oppression.

Since 1992 the Organization of American Historians has awarded the annual Lerner-Scott Prize, named for her and Anne Firor Scott, to the writer of the best doctoral dissertation in U.S. women's history.[14]

Gerda Lerner c. 1984.

Selected works

Black Women in White America: A Documentary History was published in 1972. It chronicles 350 years of black women being treated as property and describes the long range effects of the slave past. It was one of the first books to detail the contributions of black women in women's history. The Creation of Feminist Consciousness was published in 1993. The book traces the roots of patriarchal dominance back to two millennia.

In The Creation of Patriarchy (1986), volume one of Women and History, Lerner ventures into prehistory, attempting to trace the roots of patriarchal dominance. Lerner provides historical, archeological, literary, and artistic evidence for the idea that patriarchy is a cultural construct. The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to 1870 (1994) is the second volume of Women and History. In this book, she reviews European culture from the seventh century through the nineteenth century, showing the limitations imposed by a male-dominated culture and the sporadic attempt to resist that domination. She examines in detail the educational deprivation of women, their isolation from many of the traditions of their societies, and the expressive outlet many women have found through writing.

Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (2003) is a detailed documentation of her years from childhood in Vienna to 1958, when she first began her studies at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Lerner received many awards for her works, including the Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Historical Writing of the Society of American Historians, and the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Special Book Award.


Lerner died on January 2, 2013, in Madison, Wisconsin, at age 92.[15]

Other works



  • Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom (1957)
  • Black Like Me (1964)
  • Home for Easter (n.d.)


  • No Farewell (1955) an autobiographical novel
  • The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels against Authority (1967)
  • The Woman in American History [ed.] (1971)
  • Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (1972)
  • The Female Experience: An American Documentary (1976)
  • A Death of One's Own (1978/2006)
  • The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (1979)
  • Teaching Women's History (1981)
  • Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey (1982)
  • The Creation of Patriarchy (1986)
  • The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy (1994)
  • Scholarship in Women's History Rediscovered & New (1994)
  • Why History Matters (1997)
  • Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (Temple University Press, 2003)
  • Living with History/Making Social Change (2009)


  1. Bauer, Patricia. "Gerda Lerner | biography - Austrian-born American writer and educator". Retrieved 2015-11-10.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Lehoczky, Etelka (December 18, 2002). "A historian looks back ; Gerda Lerner examines a life lived in controversy--her own". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2010-01-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Ramde, Dinesh. "Gerda Lerner: Pioneering feminist Lerner, UW professor dies" Milwaukee Journal Sentinel January 4, 2013
  4. Lerner, Gerda (2002). Fireweed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. pp. 151–200.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Lee, Felicia R. (2002-07-20). "Making History Her Story, Too". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-01-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Debra Taczanowsky. "Debra Taczanowsky | Women making inroads, but still fighting for equality - The Tribune-Democrat: Editorials". Retrieved 2015-11-02.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Crowther, Bosley (May 21, 1964). "Black Like Me (1964) James Whitmore Stars in Book's Adaptation". The New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Master of Arts in Women's History | Sarah Lawrence College". Retrieved 2015-11-02.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1
  10. 10.0 10.1
  12. Lee, Felicia R. (July 20, 2002). "Making History Her Story, Too". The New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter L" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 29, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Huckabee, Charles (January 3, 2013). "Gerda Lerner, Pioneering Scholar of Women's History, Dies at 92". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 2013-01-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Gerda Lerner, Pioneering Feminist and Historian, Dies at 92". New York Times. Retrieved 3 January 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Ransby, Barbarba. 2002. "A Historian Who Takes Sides," The Progressive, September.
  • Lerner, Gerda. 2005. "Life of Learning." Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 2005.
  • MacLean, Nancy. 2002. "Rethinking the Second wave," The Nation, October 14.
Further reading
  • Felder, Deborah G., and Diana Rosen. 2003. Fifty Jewish Women Who Changed the World. New York: Citadel Press (Kensington Publishing), pp. 216–220.
  • Scanlon, Jennifer, and Shaaron Cosner. 1996. American Women Historians, 1700s-1990s: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, Connecticut, and London: Greenwood Press, pp. 144–146.
  • Weigand, Kate. 2001. Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women's Liberation. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. (Multiple references, indexed.)

External links