In 2011 women in the USA may hear of the injustices and lack of rights of women in other countries and wonder how is this possible? Our younger generations of women residing may take many things for granted that women in this country once had to fight for and in some cases even go to jail over.
For example in 1769 American colonies based their laws on the English common law, which was summarized in the Blackstone Commentaries. It said, “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law. The very being and legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated into that of her husband under whose wing and protection she performs everything.”
Once upon a time, women in this country, upon marrying, forfeited all their property to the ownership of their husband. After the passing of the New York’s Married Women’s Property Act in 1848, which granted married women some control over their property and earnings, other states slowly followed suit.
Some of these laws and events may seem like ancient history, however if one reads more about the history of women’s rights, it is shocking to learn what laws have have only been passed in recent years that protect women’s rights. I want to encourage every woman in the world to learn about the women in history who have made helped to make our world a better place for women.
This leads me to introduce you to Gerda Lerner, PhD who turned 91 years old on April 30th this year. Gerda is the founder of women’s studies in the USA. She was born Gerda Kronstein in Vienna, Austria on April 30, 1920, and was the first child of Ilona and Robert Kronstein, an affluent Jewish couple. Her father was a pharmacist, her mother an artist.
Here is how Gerda describes some of her early years in her own writing:
“I was born a middle-class Jewish girl in Vienna in 1920. My family always lived in a nest of security surrounded by the vast insecurity of a truncated former empire, repeatedly threatened by invasion and instability. To be born and raised Jewish in a country in which Catholicism was the state religion and anti-Semitism was an honored political tradition meant, from early on, to be branded as different. Jews were set apart, we were not ‘normal.’ Fascists and anti-Semites were organized in political parties and, in the years of my growing up, became more and more powerful. Finally it was not a question of whether they would come to power, but when.”
“What of the life of the mind? I received mixed messages in the family. My father, a pharmacist, exemplified the virtues of scientific inquiry, of respect for verifiable truths and replicable experiments.”
“My mother was a sort of feminist, heavily influenced by Ibsen, Scandinavian novelists, and French avante garde thinkers. She was a self-defined Bohemian, rebelling against the bourgeois standards of propriety, advocating sexual freedom, and experimenting with all kinds of then novel practices, from vegetarianism to Yoga. She was unhappy in her marriage and revolted against the traditional roles of housewife and mother. She fashioned an alternate lifestyle for herself that scandalized her mother-in-law, with whom she lived in a constant state of warfare. My mother was an artist and wanted to focus on that vocation, something she was not fully able to do until the years of emigration, when she was free of familial responsibilities. She had a studio in the city, where she kept a kind of salon for young artists and writers. Despite their marital difficulties, my father helped her artistic development in every way.”
Following the take over of Austria by the Nazis, she joined the anti-Nazi resistance, and spent six weeks, including her eighteenth birthday, in an Austrian jail. Her family was able to escape from Austria and persecution by the Nazis, but while they remained in Europe, Gerda with the help of a young man named Bobby Jensen, immigrated to the United States in 1939. After working a series of jobs and marrying and divorcing Jensen, she met and married Carl Lerner, a young theater director. Gerda shares this about her life:
“At this time, when I look back on my life and my work, I see patterns and connections that were not so clearly visible at an earlier stage of my life. The impact of outside political and social events that I experienced in childhood and as a teenager shaped my connection to history: I was a victim of terror and persecution; my life was deeply affected by historical events. As a witness to terrible events, I early learned that history matters. On the other side, a childhood in which artistic creativity and expression were cherished and in which learning was considered not only a practical means of career building, but a means of finding equilibrium and meaning in life well equipped me for survival as a refuge. The life of learning and thinking would always be connected for me with teaching others and with finding a way of applying what I knew to the problems in society.”
“Growing up under a fascist government as a young girl, I wanted to change the world. Antifascism was real to me, a ray of hope in a hopeless environment – it meant democracy, free elections, equal rights for al citizens, freedom of thought. During a short stay in a Nazi jail, from which at the time I had no hope of ever escaping, I learned from my cell mates that political action meant working with others. Once could not survive alone.”
“Later, in America, as an unskilled immigrant worker, I learned firsthand what it meant to be poor and without a support network. I had lived my childhood and adolescence in middle-class comfort; now I was on my own in a labor market in which women were restricted to only the most undesirable jobs. I worked as a domestic, as an office worker, as a salesgirl, and, after a year of training, as a medical technician — always at minimum wages and without job security. During job searches and on the job I experienced discrimination against women –pervasive, sometimes subtle, often open. At times it was mixed with other forms of discrimination. I applied for a job as a switchboard operator at the New York Telephone company. I never made it past the first interview. ‘We don’t hire Jewish girls,’ she informed me. ‘Why?’ ‘Their arms are too short to reach the switches.’ That was a new one…
Gerda and Carl Lerner had two children and remained married until his death in 1976. It wasn’t until she had raised her children that she decided to go to college. Here is how she describes the experience:
“In the Fall of ’63 I entered Columbia University. I was forty-three years old; my daughter was in college and my son was in high-school. My husband was busy with a successful career as a film-maker and teacher of film. I had shopped around before selecting a graduate school in order to be allowed to do a biography of the Grimke sisters, the only Southern women to become agents and lecturers of the American Anti-Slavery Society, as my dissertation. Columbia was the only place where the department chairman was willing to bend the institutional regulations so as to meet my needs. The topic, on which I had already been working for four years, was approved for my dissertation, even before I had fulfilled my orals requirements. Due to this flexibility, I was able to earn both the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in three years from the time I entered, while also teaching part-time at the New School and for the final year at Long Island University in Brooklyn.”
“In a way, my three years of graduate study were the happiest years of my life. It was the first time in my adult life I had time and space for thinking and learning. Greedy for knowledge, the way only people who have long been denied an education can be, I gave up all recreation, social life, and other interests. More than anything else I was driven by an urgency to learn what I needed to know in order to carry out a passionate ambition, which by then had take concrete shape in my mind.”
“During the interview at Columbia prior to my admission to the Ph.D. program, I was asked a standard question: Why did I take up the study of history? Without hesitation, I replied that I wanted to put women into history. No, I corrected myself, not put them into history, because they are already in it. I want to complete the work begun by Mary Beard. This announcement was, not surprisingly, greeted by astonishment. Just what did I have in mind? And anyway, what was Women’s History? The question set me off into a lengthy explanation, on which I have played variations for the past forty years. I ended in somewhat utopian fashion: ‘I want Women’s History to be legitimate, to be part of every curriculum on every level, and I want people to be able to take Ph.D.s in the subject and not have to say they are doing something else.”
“As if my age and unusual background did not sufficiently mark me as ‘different’ from other students, I set myself further apart with this little speech, as being opinionated and having grandiose ambitions. But my real difficulty in graduate school was not so much style as substance – I could not accept the content of the curriculum, the worldview I was being taught.”
“In the twenty-five years since I had left school in Vienna, I had been an unskilled and later semi-skilled worker, a housewife, a mother, a community activist. In all these roles I met an active group of women, who worked quietly and without public recognition, usually without pay and frequently without an awareness of the significance of the work they were doing. Political organizations were influenced by their work, yet no one would ever know of their existence through the writings of historians or through the media.”
“Now, in one of the best graduate schools in the country I was presented with a history of the past in which women did not seem to exist, except for a few rulers or some who created disturbances. What I was learning in graduate school did not so much leave out continents and their people, as had my Viennese education, as it left out half the human race, women.”
“I found it impossible to accept such a version of the past as truth. I questioned it in seminars and in private discussions with faculty, and I was quickly made the target of ridicule by my teachers and classmates. Had I been a young woman just out of college, I probably could not have withstood this social pressure. Still, after a while, I made a place for myself and even won the respect of some of the faculty for my specialized knowledge. I learned sometimes from my professors, often against them, and much by trail and error, but always I tested what I was learning against what I already knew form living. What I brought as a person to history was inseparable from my intellectual approach to the subject; I never accepted the need for a separation of theory and practice. My passionate commitment to Women’s History was grounded in my life.”
Lastly here are some of Gerda’s thoughts on the importance of recognizing women in history:
“In U.S. historiography, as in American popular culture, historians have tended to over-emphasize the role of the individual in history. Great men are identified as founders and leaders; they become the virtual representatives of the movement: William Lloyd Garrison for abolition, Eugene Debs for the socialist movement, Martin Luther King Jr. for the civil rights movement. In fact, no mass movement of any significance is carried forward by and dependent upon on leader, or one symbol. There are always leaders of subgroups, of local and regional organizations, competing leaders representing differing viewpoints, an, of course, the ground troops of anonymous activists. And, as can be shown in each of the above cases, emphasis on the ‘great man’ omits women, minorities, many of the actual agents of social change. In so doing it gives a partial, an erroneous picture of how social change was actually achieved in the past and thereby fosters apathy and confusion about how social change can be made in the present.”
“When I undertook to study the past of women I did not know that I would have to learn more than several advanced academic degrees could encompass. I would have to learn to think in opposition; to free myself from patriarchal thought and constrains; to learn to withstand ridicule, contempt, and obstinate resistance.”
|Dr. Gerda Lerner on her 90th Birthday (April 2010)
Gerda Lerner has published a significant number of books. Her first book was written in 1955. The most recent publication was released in 2003. Her writings have continually recognized the importance of women in history. In 1981 Dr. Lerner became the first woman in fifty years to be elected president of the Organization of American Historians. Gerda Lerner has created a lasting legacy. We must be the ones to ensure that a women such as Dr. Gerda Lerner is not forgotten and that her name and contributions are recorded in history books of the future.
How do you think we can ensure that more people learn about women like Gerda Lerner?
What are your thoughts about Gerda Lerner’s life?
Did it surprise or shock you that Gerda Lerner met with resistance to developing women’s studies and women’s history courses at the university level?
Some of Gerda Lerner’s Professional Accomplishments:
- Singing of Women (1951, with Eve Merriam)
- Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom (1957)
- Black Like Me (1964)
- Home for Easter (n.d.)
- No Farewell (1955) an autobiographical novel
- The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels against Authority (1967)
- The Woman in American History [ed.] (1971)
- Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (1972)
- The Female Experience: An American Documentary (1976)
- A Death of One’s Own (1978/2006)
- The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (1979)
- Teaching Women’s History (1981)
- Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey (1982)
- The Creation of Patriarchy (1986)
- Why History Matters (1997)
- The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993)
- Scholarship in Women’s History Rediscovered & New (1994)
- Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (2003)
Here is a video of Gerda Lerner, PhD being interviewed: