Feminist pioneer Gerda Lerner dead at 92

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On Jan. 2, we lost another feminist pioneer. The esteemed historian Gerda Lerner, a longtime University of Wisconsin professor, died in Madison at age 92. 

Lerner was a leader in the field of women’s history, launching the first master’s degree program in women’s history at Sarah Lawrence College in the 1970s and the first doctoral program in women’s history at the University of Wisconsin in 1980. The UW program is one of the most prestigious in the nation and has produced dozens of exceptional historians who are teaching and publishing important scholarship on women.

Lerner was an immensely knowledgeable and disciplined woman who demanded rigorous standards of scholarship from her students. No one ever took her courses for “easy” credits, that’s for sure. Students who stuck through their coursework, accepted criticism and wrote endless revisions emerged as better scholars and could take real pride in their achievement.

I think Lerner’s stern teaching methods stemmed from two things. She had an old school, perhaps even Old World belief (given that she was born in Vienna in 1920) in strict standards of scholarship and accountability. As a pioneer of women’s history, which was constantly attacked by traditional historians, she knew that the new methods, theories and findings of women’s history needed to be accurate, carefully considered and able to withstand criticism.

In addition to training generations of new scholars, Lerner published many influential books and essays on women’s history. 

The first Lerner book I read was an anthology she edited called “Black Women in White America,” which is still used in many schools. It’s a collection of first-person narratives that convey the experiences of African-American women from slavery to the 1970s. In voices that are alternately heart-wrenching and assertive, the women discuss slave labor, family life, the struggle for education, domestic work, overcoming stereotypes, racial pride and more.

Lerner’s magnum opus is a two-volume study that grapples with the core issues of women’s history: subordination and liberation.

In “The Creation of Patriarchy,” Lerner explores the roots of patriarchal dominance, concluding that it was an evolutionary development that stretched from about 3100 to 600 B.C.E. It likely originated with the dawn of agriculture. Because women’s labor and children became significant assets, men sought economic advantage by controlling women’s reproductive capacities and freedom of movement. Lerner contends that women’s subordination provided the model for private property and slavery. Male dominance was enforced through laws, customs and religious dogma. It was institutionalized further by increasingly hierarchical organs of church and state. The only good news is that because patriarchal control was a culturally constructed process, it was not inevitable but alterable. 

In “The Creation of Feminist Consciousness,” Lerner travels from the Middle Ages to the late 19th century to trace women’s long slog toward self-awareness. The development of feminist consciousness was stymied primarily by the denial of education reinforced by legal, religious and occupational restrictions. It was not until the 19th century that increased literacy, growing economic independence, knowledge of women’s historical oppression and new female networks demanding reforms expanded women’s roles and opportunities.

Some politicians today want to restrict reproductive, educational and occupational choices for women. Gerda Lerner’s writing implicitly calls for resistance to turning back the tide of progress. This extraordinary woman was jailed by the Nazis in her native Austria in 1938. Her passion for justice ran deep. We have much to learn from her writing and her example.