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March 1st marks the start of Women’s History Month — and for that we owe thanks to historian and author Gerda Lerner, the founder of the field of women’s studies and a giant among historians.

While teaching women’s history at Sarah Lawrence College in 1979, Lerner was the guiding force behind a 15-day conference, the Summer Institute in Women’s History for Leaders of Women’s Organizations. Out of that event emerged “National Women’s History Week,” later expanded to “National Women’s History Month.”

Today it’s a grassroots movement, with events across the US on college campuses, libraries, at corporations and non-profits, in magazines, bookstores, community centers and government offices, in cinemas and schools.

It would be impossible to understand the history of “women’s history” without Gerda Lerner.

An immigrant from Nazi-occupied Vienna, she was an undergraduate at the New School for Social Research in New York City in 1963 when she taught a course on “Great Women in American History” — the first of its kind, ever.

“History as a subject grabbed me and never let me go.”

She received her PhD at the age of 46 — writing her dissertation on the abolitionist and women’s rights campaigners Sarah and Angelina Grimké — out of that came The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina. She went on to write many more books that changed forever the way historians view the experiences of women.

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At Sarah Lawrence, Lerner pioneered the nation’s first master’s degree program in women’s history. Later at the University of Wisconsin-Madison she launched the first PhD program in women’s history. “I was a laughingstock because I insisted that women had a history,” she said. “They all said, ‘You have a brilliant academic career ahead of you — abandon this outlandish idea.’”

In Fireweed: A Political Autobiography, Lerner describes her family’s escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna, her life as a Communist Party political organizer with her husband, the filmmaker Carl Lerner, and how she fell in love with women’s history:

“. . . history as a subject grabbed me and never let me go and before long, when I realized that what I wanted to do was to create and promote the history of women, I put all my energy, passion and talent into becoming a good historian. I knew that as a pioneer in a neglected or nonexistent field I could succeed only through excellence.

While academia became her professional home, her deepest commitment was not to the ivy tower but real-world practice. In a 2002 interview with the Wisconsin Academy Review, she said:

“The most important thing, the thing I have always lived by, is that you must be engaged in some way in the world in which you live. How, is for each person to choose.”

Thank you Gerda Lerner!

You can make a gift to the Gerda Lerner Fellowship Fund at the University of Wisconsin here.

 

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