Because of the efforts from New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug, America celebrates Women’s History Month in March each year. It started as a one-day holiday, commemorating a terrible fire at a sewing factory in New York on March 26, 1911 that killed 146 women. The holiday was later extended to the week including March 8, International Women’s Day. Congress finally made it an annual one-month celebration in 1972. But the idea for a national movement to bring women into the spotlight – from the anonymous heap of history – really began with Gerda Lerner. Lerner, who was born in Austria, immigrated to the US and became a college professor of history. Lerner founded the field of gender studies.
Gerda Lerner: An Appreciation
Gerda Lerner died recently, at the age of 92. She was certainly not a household name, like Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan, but she was as important to the modern women’s movement as either of them, if not more so. Gerda Lerner was a pioneer in the field of gender studies and a strong advocate for gender equality. Lerner was a founding member of the National Organization for Women and had a role in creating Women’s History Month.
I first became aware of her contributions in the 1970s, as did many women coming of age in the Second Wave of Feminism. Her academic studies were part of our curriculum in the school of life.
Born in Austria in 1920, Gerda grew up in a privileged household. She recalled watching her mother drop items on the floor and walk away, leaving servants to clean up her mess. “I wanted the world to be a just and fair place, and it obviously wasn’t – and that disturbed me right from the beginning,” she said.
Lerner lived through the Nazi occupation and was imprisoned briefly at the age of 18. The time she spent in jail was invaluable, she said, because she learned so much from the women she shared a cell with. “They taught me how to survive,” Lerner wrote in Fireweed: a Political Autobiography. “Everything I needed to get through the rest of my life I learned in jail in those six weeks.”
She obtained her doctorate at New York’s Columbia University in 1966, and joined the faculty at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where she founded the first college women’s studies program. In 1972, the university became the first to offer a graduate degree in women’s history. In 1980, she established a doctorate program in women’s history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she remained on the faculty until just last year when she retired at age 91.
Lerner wrote several books in the field of women’s history, including her 1986 work The Creation of Patriarchy and her 1994 volume The Creation of Feminist Consciousness. She also edited Black Women in White America, one of the first books to document the struggles and contributions of black women in American history.
Her strong opinions on the teaching of women in history arose from what she experienced growing up, she said, because women’s contributions to society simply weren’t taught. “When I was faced with noticing that half the population has no history, and I was told that that’s normal, I was able to resist the pressure,” she said.
Her convictions, and the way she taught others to look beyond what they were being told, made her an icon in the eyes of everyone who knew her. “She was always a very strong-willed and opinionated woman,” her son, Dan Lerner, said. “I think those are the hallmarks of great people, people that have strong points of view and firmly held convictions.”
Gerda Lerner was indeed one of those great people and we are fortunate to live with the benefit of her legacy to American women.
For Women’s History Month, check out Gerda Lerner, Bella Abzug and other feminist pioneers. You might learn something!