Gerda Lerner

By Mariana Brandman, NWHM Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History | 2020-2022

Gerda Lerner, the “godmother of women’s history,” fled Nazi-occupied Austria and became an accomplished historian and advocate for female scholars. She established the first graduate programs in women’s history and fought to include and empower women in the study of history.     

Gerda Hedwig Kronstein was born on April 30, 1920 in Vienna, Austria. She and her younger sister, Nora, grew up in an assimilated Jewish household. Her father, Robert, owned a pharmacy and her mother, Illona (Neumann), was an aspiring artist. The challenges her mother encountered trying to balance art with her duties as a housewife and mother made a lasting impression on Lerner.  

Following Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938, Lerner’s father fled to Liechtenstein to avoid arrest by the Gestapo. In an attempt for force his return, the Gestapo imprisoned Lerner and her mother. More than a month later, after Lerner's father surrendered his assets to the Nazis, Lerner and her mother were released and joined Robert in Liechtenstein. Luckily, the Gestapo never learned that Lerner had been doing underground work with the Communist Party for several years. In 1939, Lerner made her way to the United States through a marriage of convenience to a former boyfriend; the two divorced a year later.   

Lerner lived in New York City, working as a waitress, office clerk, and X-ray technician to support herself while she learned English. In 1941, she married Carl Lerner, a respected film editor. They moved to Hollywood and had a daughter, Stephanie, in 1945, and a son, Daniel, in 1947. Lerner and her husband were both members of the Communist Party, and Lerner worked with community groups to advocate for social justice issues. Lerner soon became a local leader of the Congress of American Women, a grassroots organization affiliated with the Communist Party. 

In the early 1940s, Lerner had begun to write about the Nazi regime and efforts to resist it, including her own experience in jail. The family returned to New York in 1949 (her husband's Communist ties had made it difficult to find work in Hollywood) and around this time, the Lerners severed their ties to the Communist Party. In 1955, Lerner published a novel, No Farewell, which took place in Vienna on the eve of German occupation.  

In the late 1950s, Lerner began researching a historical novel based on the lives of abolitionist sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimké. She enrolled in history courses at the New School for Social Research in New York where her fascination with women’s history led to her to teach “Great Women in American History” while still an undergraduate herself. It was one of the first college courses offered in the field of women’s history.  

Lerner earned her bachelor’s degree from the New School in 1963 and went on to do graduate work in history at Columbia University. Dissatisfied with learning about “a world in which women don’t exist,” she specialized in women’s history, even though it was not a recognized field within the discipline. Despite departmental objections, Lerner wrote her dissertation about the Grimké sisters, completing her doctorate in 1966. She published the dissertation, The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery, in 1967.  

Lerner began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in 1968. There, she dedicated herself to advancing the field of women’s history, both as a scholar and a teacher, and fostering women’s full and equal participation in the discipline. Lerner helped establish the Coordinating Committee of Women Historians in 1969, an organization that advocated for history by and about women. In 1971, she published the textbook, The Woman in American History. In 1972, she spearheaded the first graduate (master’s level) program in women’s history in the United States at Sarah Lawrence. Bolstered by the women’s movement, a new generation of female scholars entered the profession, many gravitating toward women’s history. Lerner was dedicated to building the field, taking on speaking engagements, running summer institutes, and organizing the first “Women’s History Week” in 1979, which later became Women’s History Month.  

In addition to her professional advocacy, Lerner continued to publish scholarly work. Her article, “The Lady and the Mill Girl” (1969) served as an influential example of class analysis in women’s history. She edited the landmark anthology Black Women in White America (1972), which offered an array of Black women’s perspectives throughout American history, as well as The Female Experience (1976). Lerner’s goal with these anthologies was to gather material that would enable other scholars to write women’s history as well.  

Lerner joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1980, where she founded the first doctoral program in women’s history. The following year, she became the president of the Organization of American Historians, the first female president in several decades. In 1986, Lerner wrote The Creation of Patriarchy, a history of male dominance in Western civilization that won the American Historical Association’s recently-established Joan Kelly Prize for the best book in women’s history/feminist theory. Lerner retired from the University of Wisconsin in 1991, but remained active in the field, publishing several more works including The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993), which examined the impact of women’s exclusion from the historical record.  

Among Lerner’s many honors were a lifetime achievement award from the American Historical Association; the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art (the highest honor given by the Austrian state); and the Kaethe Leichter Prize, awarded to distinguished exiled Jewish intellectuals. In 2002, Lerner became the first woman to receive the Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Historical Writing from the Society of American Historians. Since 1992, the Organization of American Historians has awarded the Lerner-Scott Prize for the best doctoral dissertation in women’s history (named for Lerner and Anne Firor Scott, another pioneer in the field).  

Lerner passed away on January 2, 2013 in Madison, Wisconsin.