- “For the Future of Women’s Past”
Gerda Lerner dominated the emergence and development of women’s history as a field of academic study in the United States. The ancient Greeks had a word for the distinctive quality of her leadership—Arete, sometimes translated as “virtue,” but more accurately as “being all you can be” or “reaching your highest human potential.” For more than forty years she led the women’s history movement by always reaching higher. She was inspired and her inspiration was contagious. When we followed her example, we were being true to ourselves.
Lerner blazed a trail through academic life slightly ahead of my cohort, which came to women’s history from the social movements of the 1960s and 70s. She was a generation older than the rest of us and already an accomplished political organizer when she finished her Columbia University PhD in 1966. Born in Vienna in 1920 to a wealthy Jewish family, she wrote movingly in her autobiography, Fireweed (2002), about her bohemian artist mother who dressed in men’s clothes and lived separately in their large house. Fireweed details two notable events of her youth, the first in the summer of 1936, when she spent “four exciting weeks” at a camp run by J. B.S. Haldane and his wife, both highly respected for their work in genetics, “notorious as active pacifists,” and members of the Communist Party. “The respected position these radical intellectuals held in English society was something I had never encountered in Austria and I easily succumbed to their charm,” she said. “I buddied up with a young Oxford student who made it his business to convert me to Marxism the proper way, which consisted of my reading of Marxist classics followed by hours of his explication and discussing the readings with me” (71). The second occurred after the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938, when she was imprisoned for six weeks. There she learned harsh, enduring lessons, “thrown in with two women whose knowledge of how to survive was stronger and sounder than my own and whose politics had shaped their knowledge and ethics. I learned from them as I had to, very quickly and thoroughly, and it is to them I owe my survival as much as to anyone. I also owe to them those parts of me that are hard, bitter and frightening to other people.” She learned that “victims didn’t survive,” and “if you wanted to survive you could not do it alone and you had to fight with all your strength to keep some sort of social contract.” This knowledge, she said, “has marked all my life irrevocably” (105–106). [End Page 12]
Gerda Lerner arrived in the United States in 1939. In 1941, she married Carl Lerner, an anti-fascist theater director, and they moved to Los Angeles, where he became a successful film editor and she wrote political fiction. Their children, Stephanie and Dan, were born in 1946 and 1947. She and Carl wrote the screenplay, Black Like Me (1964), which he directed. She became a leader in the Congress of American Women (CAW), an organization affiliated with the Communist Party (CP), and the Women’s International Democratic Federation in which she worked closely with Black women community leaders. In Fireweed she remarked, “Our work in CAW had led a number of us who were CP members to be critical of the party’s attitude toward women’s political struggle. As we organized women in the neighborhoods we found that our work was not regarded with the same respect and interest in the CP as was that of people working in trade unions or political mass organizations” (262). She and others in women’s left organizations felt better about their day-to-day work by remembering “women of the past,” celebrating International Women’s Day, for example, and stories of heroic trade union women.
After the McCarthy anti-communist blacklist demolished Carl’s Hollywood career, they returned to New York, finding companionship in “the progressive community of artists, writers and film people in Croton-on-Hudson” (Fireweed, 314). Lerner ended and later hid her affiliation with the CP...