Gerda Lerner, the 92-year-old feminist icon and pioneer of women’s history, died last week, leaving behind an embarrassingly rich obituary. There’s not a sentence in it that won’t make you feel ashamed for ever looking at BuzzFeed or having a hangover. Gerda was amazing and it wouldn’t hurt any of us to go volunteer or read a book once a while, probably.
- She escaped Nazi persecution:
“Gerda Lerner spent her 18th birthday in a Nazi prison in Vienna and feared that birthday would be her last. Her jailers meant to starve her, but her cellmates — two gentile women imprisoned for their anti-fascist views — shared their rations and kept her strong.”
- She made a substantive change to the academic landscape:
“My craft and my profession are inseparable from the road I have come and the life I have led,” Lerner, a groundbreaking feminist historian credited with developing the nation’s first graduate program in women’s history, declared in “Why History Matters,” one of a dozen books she wrote or edited during a career male colleagues had predicted would fail.
- She reached back in time to retrieve forgotten women:
When Lerner entered college in her 40s to study history, she discovered a field that barely noticed her half of the human race. Forgotten or ignored were women like Christine de Pizan, a medieval author who was the first woman known to write for a living, and Gluckel of Hameln, who wrote one of the earliest first-person accounts of a German-Jewish woman’s life in the 17th century.
“I asked myself how this checked against my own life experience,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. “‘This is garbage; this is not the world in which I have lived,’ I said.”
She set out to prove that women have a history, writing books that detailed their contributions and compiling diaries, letters and other original documents that have become vital resources for other scholars.
- She gave feminism one of its best acronyms:
A founding member of the National Organization for Women, Lerner inspired other women to become activists.
- She wasted no time in challenging authority:
As a teenager, Gerda took what she later described as one of her “first feminist actions” when, dismayed by Jewish women’s exclusion from full participation in the synagogue, she refused a bat mitzvah.
- She never slept:
Lerner taught at Sarah Lawrence from 1968 to 1980, when she moved to the University of Wisconsin-Madison as Robinson-Edwards Professor of History. In 1981 she became the first woman in 50 years to serve as president of the Organization of American Historians.
Among her major works are “Black Women in White America” (1972), a documentary collection that became a standard text in women’s history, and “Women and History,” a sweeping two-volume examination of gender inequality published by Oxford University Press in 1986 and 1993.
She also wrote “Fireweed” (2002), a political autobiography that broke decades of silence about her activities in the Communist Party (she later renounced her membership); and “A Death of One’s Own” (1978), a moving account of her husband’s battle with brain cancer.
- She received numerous academic awards:
“Lerner received 14 honorary degrees over the years.”
- But refused to be satisfied with commendations and lip service:
“[Lerner] was uncomfortable with the ceremonial hoods that came with them — symbols, she said, of “the millennium of exclusion of women from universities.”
It took her a year to rip the hoods apart. “I wanted to change this patriarchal symbol into an art object,” she said, and turned the scraps of satiny fabric into a colorful quilt, which she mounted on her living room wall.”
Greda Lerner: Dismantling the patriarchy through crafting.