- Gerda Lerner—Inspiration—Counselor—Friend
On Sunday, April 28, 2013, Gerda Lerner’s memorial service was held on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I wanted to attend the service not only to honor Gerda’s memory but also to hear stories about Gerda from her family, friends, colleagues, and students. As I listened to the tributes to this amazing woman, I wondered what more could be said. She was brilliant, complicated, demanding (sometimes difficult), and extraordinarily talented. She was a Nazi survivor, wife, mother, friend, community activist, writer, scholar, educator, mentor, historian, leader, poet, and nature lover. At the memorial service, we learned that Gerda also defined herself as a refugee. When at the end of the service, those who had not spoken were asked if we would like to tell our own Gerda story, I couldn’t speak. Gerda, for me, represented “the road taken” and I didn’t have words for that story.
Gerda and I were separated in age by more than a generation. When Gerda entered Graduate School at age forty-three, I was a high school student. Our experiences and expectations for our lives could not have been more different—which made our connection all the more miraculous. Gerda grew up in an intellectually stimulating household filled with conflict but equally filled with an appreciation of art, culture, and academic achievements. As an Austrian Jew, she never felt safe from the advancing fascism that was taking over her country. This experience gave her an intense awareness of the world around her as well as the political climate in which she lived.
I was the youngest of nine children, and my large, loving, Irish-Catholic family always provided a safe haven. By the time I was born, my father had become a successful small businessman, but his Irish working-class roots defined his politics and eventually mine. We lived in an almost all white community that was somewhat isolated and very conventional. I had no awareness of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that was passed the year of my high school graduation or of the civil rights movement and the young people (my age) who were risking their lives to register people to vote in the South.
When I graduated, I did not even consider going to college, as no one in my family had ever gone. Instead, I worked at the Bank of America. After working there for about three months, I learned that my male colleague, who had been hired the same day and who was doing the same work as me, was making 25% more in salary than I was. At first, I thought this was [End Page 16] just a mistake, but when I asked the bank manager about this difference in pay, I learned it was not a mistake. He told me that the young man was on a training program and that someday he could be a bank manager. Although I didn’t plan on making the Bank of America my career, I asked to be put in the same training program. The response from the bank manager was, “Molly, do you think people want to walk into a bank and see women in positions of authority?” At the time, I didn’t know the word “sexist,” but I did know stupidity when I witnessed it.
Very soon after that conversation, I quit my job at the bank and enrolled in a Junior College where I had the opportunity to prepare to transfer to a university. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but I knew that I wasn’t ever going to take a job that paid men more than women for doing the same work.
In college, my very simplistic world view exploded as I joined with my generation to challenge racism, militarism, and eventually sexism. My new experiences fractured my most basic beliefs, and I was desperately searching for a sustaining compass and a tangible purpose. My search led me first to the study of American History and then, much later, to Women’s History.
As I studied American History, I didn’t even notice...