Gerda Lerner, Founder of Women’s History

The great feminist historian Gerda Lerner died on Wednesday, but she has left an indelible mark.

She pioneered the field of women’s history and authored two landmark works: “The Creation of Patriarchy” and “The Creation of Feminist Conciousness.”

She, perhaps more than any other scholar in the world, excavated the role of women in history and insisted that this role be recognized—not only in her field, but in society as a whole.

She taught in the history department at Sarah Lawrence and then at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, establishing graduate programs in women’s history at both places.

When she was getting her doctorate at Columbia in the 1960s, she had to fight blatant sexism on the part of the history faculty there when she told them she wanted to study the role of women.

“They made me a laughingstock,” she told me in a fascinating interview three years ago.

“They thought I was crazy. Graduate school was not a happy experience for me. I was presented with a narrative of the past in which women did not exist. I kept saying, ‘Where are the women?’ I was told they were having babies.”

Thanks to Gerda Lerner and a generation or two of feminist scholars, such embarrassing views no longer prevail.

“It’s such a total absurdity that one half of the human population had accrued to itself the pretense that what it did was significant and what the other half did was insignificant,” she told me. Now, she added, “Women have finally gained access to equal knowledge.”

Gerda Lerner was always a force to be reckoned with, as anyone who knew her can attest, and as you’ll notice when you read her autobiography, “Fireweed,” or another memoir, “Living with History/Making Social Change.”

Born in Vienna in 1920 to a Jewish family, she became involved in the student underground against clerical fascism there. And when the Nazis marched in, she worked with the resistance.

Her father, a pharmacist, was tipped off that he was about to be arrested, so he fled to Lichtenstein, where he had a drugstore. Shortly thereafter, Gerda Lerner and her mother were arrested and jailed for six weeks as a way to pressure her father to come back.

“We were arrested without any charges,” she said. She thought she was going to be killed or sent to a concentration camp. “You have to prepare to die,” she recalled. Being in jail had a huge impact on her. “It changed my life forever,” she said.

While in jail, she met two young women who were active in the resistance. The food rations for everyone were extremely skimpy. Then the Nazis cut the food rations for Jewish inmates in half. Lerner said she was astonished when the two young women decided to share their food rations with Gerder and her mother. “I asked them why. They said, ‘We’re socialists.’ It meant entire deprivation for them. I never forgot that.”

Her life as an activist informed her life and focus as a historian.

“In Vienna, all the people I worked with were women: the people in the jail, the people in the underground … I saw women being active in every level except the executive level. Then in America when I worked with black women I was overwhelmed by the talent and persistence of their effort—and their total invisibility.”

This led her, in 1972, to write “Black Women in America: A Documentary History.”

Said Lerner: “I was told they left no record. I knew that to be a lie. My life experience told me that. This was the first collection of primary sources by black women at a time when everybody told me that it was impossible to do that.”

Her whole life, in a way, was an effort to make visible the invisible—and to honor it.

“I was part of the invisible, first in the underground as an anti-fascist, then as an immigrant, then as a leftwing radical,” she says. “My life experience was counter to the mythology.”

She told me that “the emancipation of women” is one of the central events of the last 100 years.

“It’s irreversible,” she said. “You can’t wipe women out.”

Gerda Lerner was an organizer to the end, even agitating at the Oakwood retirement center in Madison, Wisconsin, where she resided over the last few years.

She was a trailblazer for justice.

And we are fortunate now to be able to follow her trail.

If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “Farewell to Four Progressives Who Died in 2012."

Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter