Today’s AWESOME WOMAN is GERDA LERNER (b. 1920), a founding pioneer of the fields of Women’s History and African-American History. She is currently a professor emerita of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a visiting scholar at Duke University. She wrote the screenplay for Carl Lerner’s film Black Like Me in 1966.
Prior to her work, women figured in history books and courses only for their ritual status as defined by a patriarchal society (wives of Presidents), as spoilers (witches of Salem), or for their sacrifices and caregiving (Florence Nightingale). Even when portraying women who had contributed tremendously to society’s advancement and consciousness-raising (Sojourner Truth, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt), the radical substance of their work was routinely ignored.
At graduate school at Columbia University in 1963, Lerner defied her mentor’s objections and chose to write her dissertation on the Grimké sisters, 19-century Quaker educators and social activists. She taught what is considered to be the first women’s history course at the New School for Social Research in 1963, and helped to develop Women’s History programs at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University and other institutes of higher learning.
Beyond developing the critically important fields of study of Women’s and African-American History, Lerner also contributed a new, rich paradigm for researching history by organizing her work around principles that would illuminate the lives of her subjects, focussing on the experience of people as opposed to using the patriarchal historical framework of military actions, alliances, wars, and territorial domination. For example, for her 1972 book “Black Women in White America,” Lerner traveled throughout the South, visiting churches, schools and families.
Gerda Lerner was born in Vienna, Austria and was forced by the Nazis to leave her country of birth for the United States. She had to learn English and held a series of “typical women’s jobs” before moving along into her life of political and intellectual trail-blazing, and also of creativity. She married Carl Lerner, a Communist theater director, and in addition to her activism and scholarship she also collaborate with Eve Merriam a musical called “Singing of Women”, and she wrote the screenplay for the important film “Black Like Me”.
Lerner not only made an immediate difference in communities and politics, and not only established and legitimized the study of women’s and blacks’ experience, but she improved forever the way we look at history and raised the bar for authors and teachers who have come after her.
[My Awesome Woman posts were first written for and published to a closed Facebook group, and are republished here.]