Gerda Lerner was the single most influential figure in the development of women’s and gender history since the 1960s. Over 50 years, a field that encompassed a handful of brave and potentially marginal historians became one with thousands; and expanded from Lerner’s development of an MA program at Sarah Lawrence College to the presence of women’s-history faculty in the great majority of US colleges and universities.
In her first job, at Sarah Lawrence College, she quickly recognized that merely teaching women’s history would not be enough to build respect for the field, and she strategized to build women’s history programs with high visibility. Doing this often meant fighting major battles with administrators and faculty members; the battles both rested on and built her toughness and, at times, overbearingness. She began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in 1968 and worked to establish, with Joan Kelly, an MA program there, which still continues. Twelve years later she won a professorship at the University of Wisconsin, over significant opposition, where she built the country’s first PhD program in women’s history. She loved her Madison community and spent her last years there. She lectured widely on the importance of women’s history, often in an inspirational rather than an academic vein, understanding this work as political organizing.
Lerner was already a feminist by the 1940s, but in the following decades her political and intellectual orientation grew and changed. Like many of her generation and political background, she was at first uneasy about some of the sexual issues raised by the women’s liberation movement; like Betty Friedan, she worried lest the movement’s provocative style and the coming-out of lesbians stigmatize the cause of women’s equality and women’s history in particular. That changed radically in her master project of the 1980s, published in the two volumes Creation of Patriarchy and Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1986 and 1993). Behind this book lay a new conviction that patriarchy was the first and ultimate source of all oppression.
Lerner wrote many books and articles in her life some of which included:
In Praise of Aging (2004)
Living With History/Making A Social Change (2009)
Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (2003)
The Majority Finds Its Past (2005)
The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina (2004)
Why History Matters (1997)
The Creation of Patriarchy (1987)
Black Women in White America (1972)
For more information you can visit: http://www.gerdalerner.com/