- Everywoman Her Own Historian
Regularly described as the founding mother of Women's History (Lerner always capitalizes Women's History) and the author or editor of a dozen books, including The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (1979), The Creation of Patriarchy (1986), and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy (1993), Gerda Lerner is still at least as interesting as a historical subject as she is as a historian. Reviewing Lerner's book-length autobiography, Fireweed (2002), Karen Offen summed up her extraordinary life by noting that Lerner had been "Austrian, stateless, then American . . . a privileged child, a resister, a prisoner, a refugee, a governess, an immigrant, an "enemy alien," a lover and wife, an X-ray technician, a mother, a grandmother, a novelist, a musical librettist, an organizer, a student, and, ultimately, a historian, a seeker of social and political justice, and a U.S. citizen who has made an indelible mark."1 Astonishingly, this accounting understates or leaves out a lot.
Lerner represents in many respects the quintessence of a generation of activist, intellectual women, even while the particulars of her experiences and personality suited her to success. Coming of age during the Second World War, she escaped Nazi-occupied Austria for the United States, met and married a filmmaker, raised children, and joined local social justice movements in California and New York. Then she went to graduate school. Determined to study Women's History before such an endeavor, let alone a field, was conceived, she pressed on. It was always Lerner's style to press on. "I never thought about leadership," she reflected in 1997. "I still don't think about leadership. I just think about a goal that I want to achieve" (p. 186). The goal in this case was the establishment of Women's History as a legitimate field of historical inquiry, but more broadly and ambitiously it was the transformation of the historical profession and the academic discipline of history. Other ambitions would follow, but it is for her commitment to Women's History, as an author and as an activist, that Lerner is best known and will be best remembered. [End Page 475]
No doubt Lerner knows this, though a reader of her latest book, Living with History/Making Social Change, does not get the sense that Lerner necessarily wants to shape her legacy—although she surely must—so much as she relishes more reflection on how and why she envisioned and accomplished as much as she did. Her primary interest is in considering the enmeshed relationship between thought and action, lived experience and theorized experience, in the most local context: her own life. She wants to explain herself. But she also wants to explore and explain what she calls "the life in social context" in a way that resonates more widely (p. 23). Observers of the public discussion about the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court will recollect the debate concerning whether the nominee's life experiences, most particularly her gender and ethnicity, would—or should—shape her reading of the law. Lerner, one imagines, would have none of this; of course one's life informs how one thinks, just as thought informs action. The two are and should be mutually informing. For Lerner this has been the stuff of life, and thus it is the stuff of historical perspective, historical practice—history itself. Two previous collections of Lerner's essays advance some of these ideas, though in less starkly personal terms than this latest.2
Lerner positions twelve essays, almost all of which appeared in earlier iterations in the 1990s and after, within three sections: "Redefining the Profession of History," "Doing History," and "Living in History." Categorization aside, each section deals with the linked challenges of conceptualizing, professionalizing, teaching, and writing Women's History. In Lerner's telling we get her personal vantage, a fuller sense of some stories already outlined elsewhere; and we also see how central teaching and mentoring were for...