Gerda Lerner: Lectures on creativity and change aqnd the continuing importance of 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.”...

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