Gerda Lerner died on January 2, 2013. I attended her memorial service, which was held on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison on Sunday, April 28, 2013. (An article about the service follows). I wanted to attend the service not only to honor Gerda’s memory, but also to hear stories about Gerda from her family, friends, colleagues, and students. As I listened to the tributes to this amazing woman, I wondered what more could be said. She was brilliant, complicated, demanding (sometimes difficult), and extraordinarily talented. She was a Nazi survivor, wife, mother, friend, community organizer, political activist, writer, scholar, educator, mentor, historian, poet, and nature lover. During the service, we learned that Gerda also defined herself as a refugee. At the end of the service, those who had not spoken were asked if we would like to tell our own Gerda story. I couldn’t speak. Gerda, for me, represented The Road Taken and I didn’t have words for that story.
My connection with Gerda began when I was in my 20’s. I was searching for a sustaining compass that would provide me with a tangible purpose. My search led me first to the study of American History and then specifically to Women’s History.
Gerda’s writings provided the essential perspective that I needed in order to consciously self-determine my own life. From Black Women in White America to The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, as well as the books in-between and all those that followed, her extraordinary research and talent provided me with a sustaining compass.
In 1979, I was selected to attend the 19-day Women’s History Institute for Women Leaders, held at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, NY chaired by Gerda Lerner. The 39 participants included the Presidents of many women’s organizations including the Girls Scouts, NOW, Women’s Action Alliance, as well as noted scholars and women who had served with Bella Abzug in organizing the National Women’s Conference held in Houston in 1977. My invitation was issued because I had written a plea to the organizing committee to consider introducing the idea of a National Women’s History Week. Along with my plea, I had sent copies of the materials, including posters, which we had produced for the celebrations of Women’s History Week in Sonoma County in 1978 and 1979.
To determine a time to make my pitch to the conference participants for a National Women’s History Week, I needed to meet with Gerda. As I write this, I remember my quivering knees and pounding heart. At that moment in time, I could not have imagined our future relationship. It was inconceivable to me that she would become my personal champion as well the essential champion for the establishment of what has become National Women’s History Month and the National Women’s History Project.
In the decades that followed our first meeting, Gerda lent her enormous prestige as a scholar and historian to support the credibility of the work of the National Women’s History Project. During that time, I had the opportunity to keynote two luncheons attended by Gerda. Each time, knowing that Gerda was in the audience, I was reminded of my quivering knees and pounding heart from our first meeting. And each time, Gerda took the opportunity to tell all the scholars in the room the debt they owed to the organizing work of the National Women’s History Project. Her unrelenting support has always been and continues to be vital in reminding us of our purpose and possibility.
On May 7, 2013, the National Women’s History Project was notified that we were one of the beneficiaries of the Gerda Lerner Charitable Trust. As Gerda knew, her gift will be used to continue the legacy of her life. This is a daunting mission, but I know we can do it together.
Molly Murphy MacGregor
Executive Director and Cofounder
National Women’s History Project
Werner Hanak, curator at the Jewish Museum in Vienna, spoke about Gerda Lerner, who with her sister, donated their mother's artistic estate to the museum. Lerner had the quilt at right made from the academic hoods she was awarded.
April 28, 2013 5:55 pm • SAMARA KALK DERBY — State Journal
By all accounts, Gerda Lerner was a serious scholar with a fierce intellect. She was also a trailblazing feminist, a mentor to generations of graduate students, a taskmaster, a poet, a nature lover.
A Holocaust survivor who spent her 18th birthday in a Nazi jail in Vienna waiting to die, Lerner emigrated to New York as a refugee. Her marriage to filmmaker Carl Lerner produced two children.
“Mom, thank you for sewing the merit badges on my Cub Scout uniform, and for those difficult years from 16 … until I was 56,” said Lerner’s son, Dan, getting big laughs Sunday at a memorial service that celebrated Lerner’s life and contributions.
In person, or via notes read by others, dozens of people — colleagues, former colleagues, friends, family, disciples — paid their respects to the distinguished women’s studies historian who died Jan. 2 in Madison at age 92. About 150 people attended the three-hour program in an auditorium in the UW-Madison’s Grainger Hall. Lerner’s legacy includes two important studies on women and society: “The Creation of Patriarchy” (1986) and “The Creation of Feminist Consciousness” (1997). Her memoir, “Fireweed,” about her years before entering academia, was published in 2002 and was later adapted into a play.
All told, she wrote 11 books, and earned 18 honorary degrees.
“It’s wonderful to get honorary degrees, but for me the hood that came with the degree always also symbolized the millennium of the exclusion of women from universities,” Lerner wrote on a card displayed Sunday with a multicolored quilt at the front of the auditorium.
Learner further explained on the card that she wanted to change the patriarchal symbol into an art object that would honor a traditional craft of women. To that end, she ripped the hoods apart and enlisted a local quilter to craft a quilt from Lerner’s design that she hung on her living room wall.
It was at age 38, when her children were older, that Lerner even began college. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1966 and went on to found the women’s studies program at Sarah LawrenceCollege in Bronxville, N.Y.
In 1980, following her husband’s death, she moved to UW-Madison, where she established the doctorate program in U.S. women’s history.
Linda Gordon, a New York University professor who taught women’s history at UW-Madison with Lerner in the 1980s and 1990s, described herself as a beneficiary of Lerner’s “ability to bulldoze obstacles.”
Lerner also knew when to go around obstacles, Gordon said. “She was a very good strategist.” She had a toughness, an overbearingness and a persistence that Gordon compared to a dog with a bone. “She. Would. Not. Quit.”
UW-Madison colleague Judy Leavitt said that Lerner put UW-Madison on the women’s studies map, and made it the capital. She made it an “island of feminist strength.”
Dan Lerner said his mother saved every bit of paper and documented everything she did during her lifetime. While sifting through her file cabinets after her death, he found a piece of writing that said, “the truth of being a refugee is that you can never really find a new home.”
Then to his departed mother he said, “No, you are wrong. You found a home here. You made a home here.”
Living History documents the courageous life and work of Dr. Gerda Lerner and asks the question: How does knowing our history affect our potential to shape the future? Exploring Lerner’s heroic journey as a WWII refugee, grassroots activist, social reformer, writer, feminist historian, wife, and mother, the film traces the path of a woman of extraordinary vision and fortitude. An example of unwavering integrity, intellectual rigor, and a “can do” attitude, Lerner was a powerful leader for both women and men. She always had a unique ability to make the political personal and the personal political, insisting that women not be victims or accept any lesser status, but be full co-creators of history striving for their highest potential. Living History also explores the creative and collective spirit of fellow women activists who, along with Lerner, spearheaded the field of women’s history, contributing to some of the most significant advances for women in the last fifty years.
Recently, at the age of ninety-two, Dr. Lerner had begun working with filmmaker Renata Keller to document her story.