Celebrating the Schlesinger’s First 70 Years, 1943–2013

Gerda Lerner in 1981. Photo by Martha NelsonGerda Lerner in 1981. Photo by Martha Nelson

In early December 2013, the Schlesinger Library celebrated its 70th anniversary with a symposium in the Knafel Center at the Radcliffe Institute. Nancy F. Cott, the Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the library and the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of History at Harvard, introduced the five historians on the panel and moderated their discussion. Following are edited excerpts from her introduction and from the panelists’ presentations.

The speakers were Joyce Antler, the Samuel B. Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University; Thavolia Glymph, an associate professor of history and African and African American studies at Duke University; Linda Gordon BI ’84, a University Professor of the Humanities and the Florence Kelley Professor at New York University who is a 2013–2014 fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, where she holds the Matina S. Horner Distinguished Visiting Professorship; Linda K. Kerber, a Radcliffe fellow in 2002–2003, who retired in 2012 from her position as the May Brodbeck Professor 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; and Alice Kessler-Harris, the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History at Columbia University, who was a Radcliffe fellow in 2001–2002.

Gerda Lerner and the Schlesinger Library

After Gerda Lerner’s death, in January 2013, it seemed obvious that any event to mark the 70th anniversary of the Schlesinger Library that same year ought to honor Lerner. The two were intertwined in several ways.

Lerner’s career as a historian coincided with the decades of the Schlesinger Library’s major growth. Her force in developing the field of women’s history helped the collections of the Schlesinger become larger and more significant. She spoke at the library’s 40th, 50th, and 60th anniversary events. Characteristically, she closed the 50th anniversary program by stating decisively, “Patriarchal ideas are obsolete and powerless. Feminist ideas, conversely, are future-oriented and powerful.”

The founding years of the library and the career of Gerda Lerner are strongly linked through the historian Mary Ritter Beard’s imprint on both. Beard deserves the name of women’s history pioneer. Better known in the first half of the 20th century as the coauthor, with her husband, Charles Beard, of several best-selling works on US history, she herself wrote about women’s history and in the 1930s began an ambitious project to establish the World Center for Women’s Archives. Her motivation was more than archival. She believed that building a women’s archive was a “way to recapture the imaginative zest of women for public life,” as she wrote.

Beard’s insistence that recovering women’s history would revive contemporary women’s power to act inspired Gerda Lerner. In Lerner’s capacious volumes The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford University Press, 1986) and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy (Oxford University Press, 1993), she explicitly aimed to complete a project of historical recovery begun by Mary Ritter Beard. Beard equally influenced the development of the Schlesinger Library. In addition to counseling Radcliffe College President W. K. Jordan, she handed over some of the collections she had amassed for her World Center, becoming an unofficial founding mother of the Radcliffe Women’s Archives (renamed the Schlesinger Library in 1965).

Lerner decided to give her papers to the Schlesinger Library in 1975, and now, with the generous help of her children, Stephanie Lerner Lapidus and Daniel Lerner, her collection is complete. To honor and celebrate the significance of Gerda Lerner to the field of women’s history, it seemed appropriate to reflect on developments in the field over the past four or five decades. To do that, I called on five eminent historians, each having a different angle of focus in her scholarship. Each of them knew Gerda Lerner well, in a context or at a time that was distinctive.

—Nancy F. Cott

Gerda Lerner as a Force

The historian Linda Gordon, 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 said that Lerner had no illusions that she could change the world simply by writing and teaching. “She was an organizer with a very keen sense of strategy,” she said, pointing out that Lerner built women’s history programs because she understood that courses alone would not be enough to gain respect for the field.

Living in History

Reflecting on Gerda Lerner’s personal history, Linda K. Kerber 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.”

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 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 from 1811 to 1971.

Glymph quoted Lerner 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. “It has fundamentally changed how we do history and, thus, how the world is explained.”

A Historian Because of Her Jewish Experience

Joyce Antler was the director of the women’s studies program at Brandeis University when she organized the first conference on US Jewish women’s history in 1993. The first person she invited to speak at the conference was Gerda Lerner. Antler called Lerner and asked if she’d be interested in talking 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, she 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 a historian because of my Jewish experience.”

Too Many Workers and Not Enough Women

“I knew Gerda best when she was struggling hardest,” said Alice Kessler-Harris, 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 on Jewish labor history that Kessler-Harris had written in 1968 at Rutgers University, she had not mentioned 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 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 took a leave from Hofstra and joined Lerner at Sarah Lawrence, where the two worked together to understand “the inseparability of categories such as race and class and ethnicity.”

“So what did we do with women’s history?” Kessler-Harris asked. “We did exactly what Gerda told us we should do. We started the process of changing the world.”

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