- The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to 1870
Gerda Lerner’s sense that historical events matter because of their impact on individuals may have developed, in part, due to the remarkable pattern of her own life. She was an Austrian Jewish intellectual and socialist who was arrested by and escaped from the Nazis (through the intervention of her German professor who could not believe that Hitler would wish such a promising student destroyed); a refugee to America, speaking little English, forced to work as a waitress, a domestic worker, a sales clerk, an office employee, an X-ray technician and medical assistant; the author of a novel based on her life in Austria; and a feminist pioneer of Women’s Studies programs in American college curricula. In her latest works, The Creation of Patriarchy and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, her motives for writing seem due less to a professional need to publish, than the wish to leave a record of other women’s intellectual struggles. Writing her latest work, Lerner reveals, “was the most difficult work I have ever done because the scope of women’s difficulties, losses and disappointments, the horrifying tragedy of wasted talents and energy extending over centuries and millennia, became more visible to me than it had ever before. But in the end, I also sensed and experienced the strength of resistance, endurance and transcendence, the luminous thread of a common search for history, the insistence by women that we have a history and with it full humanity” (p. x). Her mission, therefore, is not only one of historical reconstruction—it is also to communicate the continuity of women’s struggle.
There is little question that once again, as in The Creation of Patriarchy, some readers will feel that Lerner has attempted to do too much. She records women’s intellectual development—particularly in its protofeminist manifestations—from the early Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. She incorporates no fewer than three women’s histories in each chapter. Where possible Lerner cites the record of the achievements and attitudes of Jewish women and American women of color. Her theories are conventional, largely derived from readings of the texts with which she works rather than the application of an overlying theoretical understanding. The discovery that predominates and [End Page 185] appears to have contributed to the structure of her work is that women have exhausted themselves and wasted their time continuously repeating earlier efforts, largely because they were unaware that they were not breaking new intellectual ground each time they addressed questions of gender. She is optimistic that the establishment of Women’s Studies as a discipline in American and Western European academies has broken this cycle at last. “While the development is uneven, depending as it does on the existence of women’s movements, it is also irreversible. Once the basic fallacy of patriarchal thought—the assumption that a half of humankind can adequately represent the whole—has been exposed and explained, it can no more be undone than was the insight that the earth is round, not flat” (p. 273).
Lerner’s book is Women’s Studies in the traditional sense: she studies the lives and works of individual women. It is written in a style accessible for non-academics with an interest in the subject. While greater detail and deeper analysis would have been welcome, on the whole, her readings (as might be expected) are sound, and her achievement impressive.