Historian Hero

Gerda Lerner, one of my historian heroes, died today.  I first became acquainted with her work during a women’s history class at Hendrix College.  It was a wonderful, wonderful class, where we had thoughtful discussions and read some really great stuff.  During that class, I realized I had always been interested in women’s history, but had never really thought about  it as separate from other kinds of history.  It opened my eyes to how much traditional history leaves out.

In grad school, I encountered her again during a historiography (history of history) class.  That conversation remains one of the most alarming I’ve ever had about history.  One African American man stated that he thought women’s history segmented history too much.  I remember him saying something like “What’s next?  Books about women and jello?  Women with fat lips and women with thin lips?”  Two females agreed with each other that the only reason why a woman’s biography would need to be written would be to describe how she had supported her famous husband.  A few of us ended up doing this tag-team, arguing thing as we desperately tried to convince these classmates that women’s history had value.  It was awful.

Around this same time, a friend and I learned about a monthly gathering for female historians (grad students and professors) at area universities.   We were at NC State, and the group also included folks from Duke and UNC.  Julie and I made the trek to a professor’s house in Chapel Hill one evening.  We both kinda wondered if we would meet anyone “famous”–after all, there are a lot of well-known historians at both Duke and UNC.  We mingled, desperately clutching a glass of wine, before the “official” part of the evening.  Julie and I didn’t really talk to anyone, because we didn’t know a soul.  The topic that night was the different stages of grad school life, so at one point, we all sat down in a circle to start the conversation.  The leader asked us to introduce ourselves, tell where we went to undergrad, what we were studying now, and the biggest difference between the two.  Julie and I were some of the first to speak.  I said something lame about campus size.  And then, an older woman spoke “I’m Gerda Lerner, and I went to the New School. . .”  Julie and I looked at each other out of the corner of our eyes and tried to look cool.  What followed was one of the most amazing discussions I’ve ever been a part of.  Gerda would get on soapboxes, talking about the inherent patriarchy of the university system and her experiences as the only one doing her kind of work.  I tried to soak up every single word, but it’s been over 10 years now, and the memories are fuzzy.

After the discussion was over, Julie and I got up and started making our way to leave.  Gerda stopped us, reintroduced herself and asked her what we were studying.  I said “Oh, just public history at NC State.”  And she said “Oh, good!  You’ll actually be able to find a job!” and patted me on the shoulder.  Julie and I looked at each other in complete shock.  Once we finally left the house, I’m not too ashamed to admit there may have been some extremely nerdy screaming on both our parts.  Not only had we met one of the greatest living historians, it had been in a very casual, completely unexpected way.

I learned a long time ago that not everyone gets this story, because a lot of people have no idea who Gerda Lerner is and what she did.  There are obituaries and biographies all over the place, but in case you don’t feel like clicking, I’ll just quote this bit from the New York Times obituary:

In the mid-1960s, armed with a doctorate in history from Columbia University and a dissertation on two abolitionist sisters from South Carolina, Ms. Lerner entered an academic world in which women’s history scarcely existed. The number of historians interested in the subject, she told The New York Times in 1973, “could have fit into a telephone booth.”

“In my courses, the teachers told me about a world in which ostensibly one-half the human race is doing everything significant and the other half doesn’t exist,” Ms. Lerner told The Chicago Tribune in 1993. “I asked myself how this checked against my own life experience. ‘This is garbage; this is not the world in which I have lived,’ I said.”

That picture changed rapidly, in large part because of her efforts while teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in the early 1970s. In creating a graduate program there, Ms. Lerner set about trying to establish women’s history as an academic discipline and to raising the status of women in the historical profession. She also began gathering and publishing the primary source material — diaries, letters, speeches and so on — that would allow historians to reconstruct the lives of women.

“She made it happen,” said Alice Kessler-Harris, a history professor at Columbia. “She established women’s history as not just a valid but a central area of scholarship. If you look at any library today, you will see hundreds of books on the subject.”

Only once, in that hideous grad school class, have I ever had to fight to prove the value of my work.  And really, up until that class, it was something I hadn’t realized needed defending.  I’ve always been curious about women’s everyday lives in the past, as well as their more famous sisters.  I’m sure part of this is simply because I’m a girl.  But I think a bigger part is because of what I grew up reading.

As you probably already know, my favorite books are about strong female characters, and those characters were almost exclusively created by female authors.  These strong women, these fictional characters soaked into my bones and became a part of who I am.   So, when I began my study of history, I came into it with some very different ideas about what was important and what I wanted to study than some other folks.  After growing up with the characters of L. M. Montgomery, I was surprised to learn how rare higher education for women was in the late 19th century.  On the other hand, after growing up with Laura, Mary and Ma, I wasn’t a bit surprised to learn how crucial women were in the settlement of the frontier.  The March sisters displayed a range of ways women could make their own lives–from motherhood to working to art to philanthropy.   These thoughts all played into my head, as I dived into women’s history and social history and kept coming up with random ways in which these beloved children’s books connected with the history texts I was reading.

So tonight, I’m thinking about Gerda Lerner and the ways her work has shaped my life and passions.  It’s hard, sometimes, to remember how recently the idea that women’s history looks a bit different from traditional history emerged.  I like to think that eventually, someone else would have pointed out the obvious, but I’m so glad it was her–and that we didn’t have to wait any longer.

2 responses to “Historian Hero”

  1. What a beautiful tribute to a beautiful woman: you’ve made her more so in my eyes, and her work also shaped mine. I love the picture of you and Julie catching each other’s eye and trying to look cool. I can imagine the scream caught in my own throat had I been there.


  2. […] isn’t like my reading interests have taken a turn to feminism over the last several months. Since I could read, I’ve been reading books about strong girls and women. Women’s history has always been a passion of mine. But I have to admit that it’s kinda […]


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