The Matriarch

AP/Wisconsin State Journal, Sarah B. Tews

Gerda Lerner in 2001

A letter written by the incorrigible muckraker Jessica Mitford in November 1975 contains an amusing portrait of Gerda Lerner, a founder of the field of women’s history. The unlikely pair had been thrown together by overlapping residencies at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center on Lake Como. The journalist recounts their collision to her daughter in an epistle that takes the form of a five-act comic play—with “grim” Gerda the object of one of the Mitford sister’s notorious teases. “Sample tease,” Mitford writes. ‘Gerda: ‘I’m here trying to structure my book...’ Me: ‘Really?  How very quaint, I’m trying to write mine.’ I’ve got her so she doesn’t know which end is up,” writes Mitford, delighting in what was surely an unfamiliar posture for the formidable Lerner.  

The women’s differences are attributable to a clash of styles, not of their similar leftist principles. Mitford found the historian’s unrelieved earnestness grating—though in fairness, Lerner, who died earlier this month, was born in 1920 to a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna, a context made to inspire a certain righteous gravity. At 19, when she and her parents immigrated to the United States to escape Nazi persecution, she was already a committed Communist. In 1941, she married Carl Lerner, a Hollywood film editor targeted by the McCarthyist witch hunts of the 1950s.

After several years developing her voice as a creative writer (her autobiographical novel No Farewell, chronicling the advance of fascism in prewar Austria, was published in 1955), Lerner enrolled in her late 30s as an undergraduate at the New School for Social Research. There she taught, in 1963, what some believe was the world’s first college course in women’s history, focused on the lives of “great women” of the United States. With that class, the through line of her life was established. Lerner earned her Ph.D. from Columbia in three years, then taught at Long Island University and at Sarah Lawrence College, where in 1972 she founded the world’s first graduate program in Women’s History. In 1980, she created a doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  

It almost goes without saying that when Lerner began her academic career in the mid-1960s, scholarly interest in members of her own sex was considered peculiar. With rare exceptions—such as Mary Beard’s 1946 Women as Force in History and Eleanor Flexner’s 1959 Century of Struggle—historical research on women as independent agents did not exist. 

In the historical narrative, women were defined by “an absence,” as Lerner described it in a 1994 televised interview with psychologist Jeffrey Mishlove. “We would learn that women had not done this and they had not done that….Essentially, according to the traditional view, women had contributed very little to the making of human society, and even less to the making of the intellectual product of Western civilization. Now, I knew that not to be the case.”

This insight was among the great intellectual contributions of Second Wave feminism—a movement of which Lerner was both a leading thinker and a respectful critic. In the face of prevailing notions of the time, she argued that there was nothing mysterious about the feminine mystique, nothing vague or amorphous about “the problem that had no name” identified by Betty Friedan. Patriarchy, Lerner argued, was an historical construct, a remnant of the caveman culture of the Bronze Age that could, once it was properly understood, be deconstructed and rejected. By uncovering the origins of women’s oppression, the absurdity of claims that it was “natural” or “divinely inspired” could be revealed. 

Lerner’s argument that women’s history was essential to the larger project of women’s liberation might seem old hat today, but it was revelatory stuff in the early 1970s, a time when, as Lerner writes in her 2009 memoir Living With History/Making Social Change, “the academic system” was even more than now “[built] on patriarchal principles.” This was a radical new use of history, and one that had as much to do with women’s future as it did with their past. 

“We define what our goals are and what we think is possible to reach,” Lerner told Mishlove, “by the stories we inherit about the people who came before us.” The immediate, obvious consequence to placing women inside the historical narrative is that their lives are considered important. This was potentially transformative for women—and, as Lerner was pleased to point out, it was glad tidings for the men, too. As she wryly observed to Mishlove, “Men have been given the impression that they’re much more important in the world than they actually are, and that’s not a good way to become a human being.” 

The restoration of half the human race to the historical record has led to consequences beyond anything Lerner could have imagined at the start of her career. When scholars started peering over the formidable shoulders of such “great women” as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and began researching and analyzing the traditional stuff of the vast majority of women’s lives—pregnancy and childbirth, child-rearing and housework—a picture of humanity with subversive implications emerged. Everyday experiences, challenges, and relationships were now worthy of attention and respect. Little wonder that the insights of women’s history have proven contagious, inspiring the LGBT community to discover its own place in the past.  

Today, courses in women’s history are taught in dozens of colleges and universities around the world. Though the prospect of a graduate degree in the subject might seem outmoded to some Third Wave Feminists—who might feel more at home in multidisciplinary Gender Studies—this in itself speaks to the extent to which the historical curriculum has been reorganized to include the experiences of women.    

One of the feats of Lerner’s department at Sarah Lawrence was the designation of March as Women’s History Month, an occasion now observed by nations on several continents. It’s for this type of activist scholarship—“fusing,” in her words, “theory and practice, life and thought”—that she’ll be remembered. Lerner’s landmark books include The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina (1967), The Creation of Patriarchy (1986), and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993). She also edited Black Women in America (1972), the first collection of historical primary sources by and about black women, created expressly as a resource to aid the African-American community’s efforts to interpret its experience. 

At times Lerner could resemble, as Mitford’s letter suggests, a caricature of Teutonic severity. She’s described in polite but measured terms by old colleagues at Sarah Lawrence as “a force of nature,” a phrase that in addition to vitality implies earthquakes and hurricanes. She was neither the first nor the only person to notice that women’s voices were missing from history—and she wasn’t the sole founder of her field.  Many other scholars, such as Alice Kessler-Harris and Nancy Cott, also deserve credit on that score.  But Lerner did possess a doggedness that made her an ideal pioneer for a field of study that has—despite the prevailing, pervasive ignorance of women’s contributions—finally mainstreamed.

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