If you know about the Seneca Falls Declaration and the 5,000 women who braved catcalls and projectiles to march down Pennsylvania Avenue during President Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration to demand the right to vote, you ought to thank Gerda Lerner for keeping the history of the women’s movement in America from being forgotten.
In the early 1960s, Lerner, who had a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, became one of the first scholars to rebel against the virtual omission of women from history texts. In 1962, she offered what may have been the first-ever college course on the history of American feminism at the New School for Social Research in New York (though the $35 class was canceled when she couldn’t get the minimum required number of 10 students to sign up). Back then, as she told New York Times interviewer Linda Greenhouse in 1970, the number of historians interested in women’s history “could have fit into a phone booth.” But Lerner persevered, and a few years later she helped found the graduate-level women’s studies program at Sarah Lawrence College – the first such program in the nation. Lerner went on to author scores of books about women’s history – 1979’s The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History is the best collection of her work – and to establish a doctoral program in the subject at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
But Lerner, who died on Jan. 2 at age 92 in Madison, had a personal narrative that was nearly as compelling, though she waited until late in her career to recount it in her 2002 book Fireweed: A Political Autobiography. Born in 1920 in Vienna, she was a 17-year-old high school student when the Nazis seized power in her country. Lerner secretly joined the anti-Hitler resistance, helping to circulate underground protest newspapers. She subsequently was arrested and jailed by authorities, who, fortunately for her, were unaware of the extent of her activism. Though terrified, she summoned up the astonishing bravery to write petitions – on toilet paper, the only paper she had – demanding that she be allowed to take the national exam, which Austrian students were required to undergo to qualify for college. Only after her father, a pharmacist and businessman, agreed to turn over his property to the Nazis was she was finally released (after six weeks in custody). She promptly reported to the hall where the test was being given. As an additional act of defiance, she demanded the right to eat while taking the exam, since she had been given such sparse rations during her imprisonment that she had lost 25 pounds. While munching a cheese roll, she wrote such an excellent essay that she received the highest possible grade.
As Lerner told Minneapolis Star-Tribune interviewer Peg Meier in 1993, being jailed was “the most important experience of my life. I had to make the choice of how I was going to die. Once you’ve faced that, it’s there for the rest of your life. It gives you a kind of basic courage.”
Two years later, in 1939, Lerner fled to the United States, where she worked as a waitress and sales clerk before marrying film editor and theater director Carl Lerner, and raising a son and daughter. But she harbored an ambition of someday writing a book, and at age 38, she finally began taking college courses, to further her ambition. The rest, shall we say, is history.
Here’s a YouTube video of Lerner in 2012, reading a poem that she wrote about the experience of aging.