A lesson in women's history

“When students tell me that women’s history is no longer a valid field, I don’t know whether to weep, cut my throat, or shake them until they wake up,” said Gerda Lerner, who is credited as one of the first pioneers of women’s history. Lerner gave a lecture last Wednesday as the inaugural speaker for the Margaret Morrison Distinguished Lecture in Women’s History Series.

Lerner has not only devoted her life to raising awareness of women’s history in America; she’s lived through harrowing
and challenging times herself. Born in 1920 in Austria, Lerner spent almost two months in a Nazi prison as a young girl. When she escaped to America in 1939, it was without her family. As a refugee, Lerner struggled alone to forge a life for herself. She later married Hollywood film editor and director Carl Lerner, and the couple fought to unionize the film industry and put an end to Hollywood blacklisting. Lerner also
joined the Congress of American Women, a group devoted to economic and social issues facing American women, and worked for civil rights and education issues in New York.

At age 38, Lerner returned to school, eventually earning her Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. Her work in academia is geared toward gaining recognition for those overlooked in American history by promoting a deeper understanding of women’s history and expanding the profile of both African-American and lower-class women. Lerner taught courses on women’s history at Long Island University, Columbia University, the New School for Social Research, and at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she now teaches as professor emerita of history. At Sarah Lawrence College, Lerner created the nation’s first master’s program in women’s history; she later created the nation’s first Ph.D. program in the same field at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Lerner’s lecture last Wednesday night reflected her ongoing passion for women’s rights — not only as a field in academia, but as a concern in contemporary American society. The lecture addressed popular misconceptions about the backgrounds of women involved in the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, the first women’s rights convention held in the United States. Lerner praised the convention for its revolutionary impact, but thought many important details about its organizers have been glossed over in the public’s “long forgetting and short remembering of women’s history in America.” The organizers, Lerner stated, had more religious affiliation and far more previous organizational experience than is commonly acknowledged.

Sonya Barclay, a graduate student in Carnegie Mellon’s history department, reminisced about an inspiring experience she had with Lerner as an undergraduate. “This world-class historian, this big name, had a seminar with all these undergrads, and sat down at a table with a notebook and pencil and took down all of our names and interests,” she said. “That’s a model of a real scholar. Real scholars want to know what students have to say.”

Indeed, at the lecture on Wednesday, Lerner asked to hear from the young people in the audience, desiring their feedback on what she’d presented. Lisa Tetrault, an assistant professor in the history department and a graduate of the Ph.D. program at University of Wisconsin–Madison founded by Lerner, said that if it were not for Lerner, she would not be in the field herself. Tetrault credited Lerner with giving students today “the luxury of a rich culture of women’s history.”

Although she acknowledged many goals that feminism has accomplished, Lerner also called attention to inequalities in class and race in America. Lerner urged the lecture attendees to work for social change, describing feminism as a movement extending beyond only women and beyond a specific period in history as “a world philosophy for men and women, a record of solid gains without the cost of bloody wars and revolutions.”

Lerner believes that many issues assigned to “feminism” signal underlying problems in society as a whole. “To call these women’s issues is an insult to men — these are human issues,” she said. Lerner asked the audience, as members of the university system, to especially consider inequalities in the availability of education. She called for greater government aid for single parents and other providers in pursuit of higher education.

Joe Trotter, head of the history department at Carnegie Mellon, added that Lerner’s contributions to society and academia go beyond the so-called confines of “women’s history.” “Lerner’s expertise extends across a number of sub-fields; she’s opened up the field of African-American women’s history, among others,” he said. “She is truly an educational model.”

Lerner, who worked as a filmmaker and screenwriter with her husband Carl, also emphasized the importance of creativity as a means of social change. “Creativity is a basic need, like food and shelter. People need to create,” she said. “The sexes have
been given stifling roles in terms of creativity — what we are allowed to do and express. You must nurture the creative impulse as a way to sustain yourself.” Lerner also encouraged the audience to get together in small groups and discuss their concerns about the world, citing this as an effective model for social reform. “Social and cultural transformations must sustain awareness of change, or it will fade. New inequities and grievances arrive with every generation....Talk together about what is standing in your way, about what is stopping you,” she advised. “Small groups can change the world.”