The Achievement Award Series: Gerda Lerner
“I want to make women’s history respectable.”
In this short phrase, 1986 AAUW Achievement Award recipient Gerda Lerner explained her quest to make an often overlooked aspect of history into an accredited and proper academic discipline. Born April 30, 1920, in Austria, Lerner was a historian and an author of screenplays, works of fiction, and an autobiography.
Although best known for her extraordinary contributions to the field of women’s history, Lerner began her life of activism at the age of 14 as a member of the student underground movement in Austria, caring for victims of fascist repression. In 1938, shortly after the Anschluss (Nazi takeover), Lerner and her mother were jailed for six weeks due to charges brought against her father. While in prison, she taught English, history, and literature as a way to remember her school work. Upon her release, Lerner graduated magna cum laude and immigrated to the United States in 1939.
For the next 20 years, Lerner placed her academic career on the back burner in favor of “performing every variety of women’s jobs” within and outside the home. Throughout this period she was also writing fiction and poetry, publishing two short stories on the Nazi annexation of Austria. In 1946, Lerner restarted her passion for activism by founding the Congress of American Women and engaging in civil rights and anti-militarism efforts. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the New School for Social Research in 1963, where she created the first-ever college course focused exclusively on women’s history. She then earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University. The focus of her scholarship was always “the recognition of difference among people and of the person who is an outcast because of race, or class, or sex.” Gerda sought to highlight the stories and lives of women who were often overlooked simply because of their gender. In 1966 she was a founding member of the National Organization for Women, and in 1972 she founded the first master of arts program in women’s history at Sarah Lawrence College. This was the first American graduate degree in this academic discipline.
Throughout her career, Lerner continued to publish books and articles that would increase the relevance of women’s history as a field of study. She was one of the first to frame her teachings and writings through a feminist lens, noting that the challenge was “to redefine education and human knowledge in the image of woman and man as equals.” One way for her to address this challenge was to show women and men alike that “the subordination of women is built into the intellectual framework by which the whole Western world is ordered. Women and men have been raised with a concept of their relative significance, which assumed it was natural that women are persons who have no history.” Many of her most important works, such as her essay collections The Majority Finds Its Past and Black Women in White America, addressed this reality.
In 1980, Lerner established America’s first doctorate program in women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She was also appointed the Robinson Edwards Professor Emerita of History at the university, where she taught until she retired in 1991. Lerner’s extraordinary efforts in the founding of the field of women’s history led to the establishment of Women’s History Month and the creation of a number of women’s history academic programs across the country and abroad. It was her never-ending commitment to teaching and pioneering the field of women’s history that led to her being awarded the 1986 Achievement Award. In her lecture during the ceremony, Lerner said, “Let us together build an intellectual edifice which adequately represents the knowledge, experiences, insights, and dreams of men and women.”
This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Jordan Brunson.
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