The Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America marked its 70th anniversary with a symposium in early December 2013 that honored women’s history pioneer Gerda Lerner (1920–2013). Born in Vienna, Austria, Lerner joined the anti-Nazi resistance as a teenager and spent six weeks in an Austrian jail before escaping to Switzerland, and then to the United States in 1939. A writer and political activist at first, she became a major force in the field of women’s history as it developed in the late 1960s. In 1972 she started the country’s first master’s program in women’s history at Sarah Lawrence College; a decade later, she moved to the University of Wisconsin at Madison where she shaped the women’s history doctoral program.
Nancy F. Cott, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the library and the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard, invited five historians who knew Lerner and her work to reflect on five decades of change in US women’s history. She introduced the symposium by noting that Lerner’s and the library’s histories are strongly linked through the work of historian Mary Ritter Beard. The passion of Beard, a woman suffrage activist in the 1910s who then joined her husband Charles Beard in writing best-selling works of US American history, was women’s history. Her work and her failed attempt to found a World Center for Women’s Archives inspired Gerda Lerner and also led to the founding of the Schlesinger Library. “Mary Beard must be credited as a founding mother of the Schlesinger Library,” Cott said. “And she was equally important to Gerda Lerner’s career. Gerda hugely admired her efforts and regarded her as a model and forebear.”
In remarks that opened the symposium, Radcliffe Institute Dean Lizabeth Cohen said that other scholars of Lerner’s generation, including Eleanor Flexner and Ann Firor Scott, relied on the Schlesinger’s holdings to write the books that began to map out US women’s history. And in the first decade of the 21st century, she noted, “our collections have been cited in more than 10,000 books.”
Gerda Lerner as a Force
The historian Linda Gordon RI ’14, who is working on a book about social movements in the United States, said, “Gerda was a social movement,” with the power to convert people to women’s history through her speaking and writing, even though English was not her first language.
“She meant to change the world,” Gordon said, listing several of Lerner’s concerns, including racism, war, imperialism, poverty, and religious intolerance. “But starting sometime in the 1940s, patriarchy became her chief enemy, and her weapon of choice was women’s history.”
Gordon, a 2013–2014 Radcliffe fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, where she holds the Matina S. Horner Distinguished Visiting Professorship, is a University Professor of the Humanities at New York University.
When Lerner joined the faculty at Wisconsin, she insisted—indeed, made it a condition of accepting the job—that the university must hire a second women’s history professor. Gordon filled that position, and the two women worked together for the next 16 years, from 1984 to 2000.
When women’s history gathered strength in the 1970s, the Schlesinger Library “was clearly the base,” Gordon said. Her generation used the materials the library had collected to begin writing women’s history.She said that Lerner had no illusion that she could change the world simply by writing and teaching. “She was an organizer with a very keen sense of strategy,” Gordon said, pointing out that Lerner built women’s history programs because she understood that courses would not be enough to gain respect for the field.
Living in History
Reflecting on Gerda Lerner’s personal history, Linda K. Kerber RI ’03 said, “Gerda learned the hard way that a woman’s relation to her own state is fragile.” Not only had Lerner been imprisoned in Austria for being a Jew, but after she emigrated to the United States, she had to register as an “enemy alien.” Lerner understood, Kerber said, “that women have a different relation to history than do men, parallel to the understanding that Jews have a different relation to history than do non-Jews.”
A Radcliffe fellow in 2002–2003, Kerber retired in 2012 from her position as the May Brodbeck Professorship in the Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Iowa, where she was also a professor of history and a lecturer in the College of Law.
Kerber said that Lerner reached for grand generalizations, for the big picture. “And the big picture meant understanding that we live in history; that the boundaries placed on us and choices we make about the shape of our lives infuse how we understand the past.”
Difference Isn’t the Problem
Thavolia Glymph, an associate professor of history and African and African American studies at Duke University, discussed Lerner’s contributions to the history of African American women, including her influential book Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (Vintage, 1972). The book contains more than 160 documents about black women’s lives between 1811 and 1971.
“When I worked with black women,” Glymph quoted Lerner as saying, “I was overwhelmed by the talent and persistence of their effort, and their total invisibility.” Lerner knew it had to be a lie when she was told that black women had left no records. It was a revelation to her, Glymph said, when she read in Lerner’s book about such women as Amy Spain, the 17-year-old black woman who was hanged in South Carolina in 1865 for expressing happiness about being free.
Glymph quoted a Lerner statement about difference: “It is not difference that’s the problem, it is dominance justified by appeals to constructed difference that is the problem.” This is especially true, Glymph said, for black women’s history. “The great outpouring of work in women’s history over the past four decades has been incredibly exciting,” Glymph said. “And it has fundamentally changed how we do history and, thus, how the world is explained.”
An Historian Because of Her Jewish Experience
Joyce Antler was director of the women’s studies program at Brandeis University in 1993 when she organized the first conference on US Jewish women’s history. And the first person she invited to speak at the conference was Gerda Lerner. Antler called Lerner and asked if she’d be interested in speaking about “the connections between her identity as a Jew and her work as a historian of women.”
Lerner was not happy with the question and hung up the phone. “A few minutes later,” Antler said, Lerner called back to say that “while she had never given this issue even a moment’s thought, it was among the most profound questions she had ever been asked.” At the conference, Lerner proclaimed, “I am an historian because of my Jewish experience.”
Antler is the Samuel B. Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University.
Too Many Workers and Not Enough Women
“I knew Gerda best when she was struggling hardest,” said Alice Kessler-Harris RI ’02, referring to the early 1970s, when Lerner was working at Sarah Lawrence to gain recognition for the field of women’s history.
In the dissertation Kessler-Harris had written in 1968 at Rutgers University on Jewish labor history, she had made no mention of women. But as a tenured professor of history at Hofstra University, she signed a contract to write a book about women’s labor history. After hearing about the book contract, Lerner called Kessler-Harris. “You’re never going to be able to write that book,” she said. “Too many workers and not enough women. The only way you’ll ever be able to write that book is to come to Sarah Lawrence and work with me.”
Kessler-Harris then took a leave from Hofstra and joined her at Sarah Lawrence, where the two women worked together to understand “the inseparability of categories such as race and class and ethnicity.”
Now the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History at Columbia University, Kessler-Harris was a Radcliffe Institute fellow in 2001–2002.
“So what did we do with women’s history?” she asked. “We did exactly what Gerda told us we should do. We started the process of changing the world.”
The Library’s Future
In addition to the papers of Gerda Lerner and other important feminists, the Schlesinger Library contains collections about women and families who are less well known. The library is constantly working to diversify its collections so that they represent women from all walks of life. With support from The Radcliffe Campaign, the library will strengthen these efforts and will also increase its digitization program so that its holdings are accessible to researchers throughout the world.