RIP Gerda Lerner

Gerda Lerner, who helped found the discipline of women's history in the United States, passed away. She was 92.

In the mid-1960s, armed with a doctorate in history from Columbia University and a dissertation on two abolitionist sisters from South Carolina, Dr. Lerner entered an academic world in which women’s history scarcely existed. The number of historians interested in the subject, she told The New York Times in 1973, “could have fit into a telephone booth.”

“In my courses, the teachers told me about a world in which ostensibly one-half the human race is doing everything significant and the other half doesn’t exist,” Dr. Lerner told The Chicago Tribune in 1993. “I asked myself how this checked against my own life experience. ‘This is garbage; this is not the world in which I have lived,’ I said.”

That picture changed rapidly, in large part because of her efforts while teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in the early 1970s. In creating a graduate program there, Dr. Lerner set about trying to establish women’s history as a respected academic discipline and to raising the status of women in the historical profession. She also began gathering and publishing the primary source material — diaries, letters, speeches and so on — that would allow historians to reconstruct the lives of women.

“She made it happen,” said Alice Kessler-Harris, a history professor at Columbia. “She established women’s history as not just a valid but a central area of scholarship. If you look at any library today, you will see hundreds of books on the subject.”

Lerner's contributions in terms of publishing archival sources like Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (1972) was immense. So too was her willingness, as a white feminist historian, to confront the "sisterhood myth" of historical relations between black women and white women. Upon finding there was "more evidence of tension than of sisterhood"(The Majority Finds Its Past, 1979), she abandoned that myth in search of an intellectual framework that incorporated the diversity of women's history as affected by race, class, ethnicity, and other experiences. While the road towards true inclusiveness and intersectional awareness in women's historiography still has a ways to go, Lerner played an important role in placing it on that path.

Hat tip to Shaker BlueRidge for the NYT obit.

[Note: If there are less flattering things to be said about Lerner, they have been excluded because I am unaware of them, not as the result of any deliberate intent to whitewash her life. Please feel welcome to comment on the entirety of her work and life in this thread.]

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