- Answering the Call
The brief articles that follow are authored by some of Gerda Lerner’s former graduate students and each offers a particular perspective on Lerner’s life and work. In doing so, each author, to varying degrees, considers the unspoken question of Gerda Lerner’s legacy—as a historian, a mentor, an activist, and a proselytizer of and for women’s history—as a field of inquiry, as a lifelong endeavor, as a fierce commitment to social justice. In all the essays the question of difference repeatedly rises to the fore in the form of hierarchies and their creation both in relation to our scholarship and to the daily struggles between and with “teacher” and “students” that marked our time with Gerda. All the essays also speak in one way or another of her as “difficult” but often teaching valuable lessons for surviving life within and outside of the academy. They are invested with memories and reflections on the challenges of working with Gerda and the lessons learned from her (often only realized years later) about the academy, the profession, and the importance of women’s history as a method and a calling.
Gerda Lerner was ferocious as an advocate and as a critic, which were coequal in her approach to education and activism. I entered the Women’s History Program at Wisconsin in 1984, with a Women’s Studies degree and as an “out and proud” dyke. I recall my first meeting with Gerda, anxiously standing in a line outside her office door with the five other women from my cohort, waiting to meet with her and discuss our goals and semester plans. I realized immediately that I was underdressed for that initial encounter and that shorts and a tank top from the “All American Boy” shop in West Hollywood and a large labrys hanging around my neck might not offer the best first impression—but it was the first impression I wanted to convey.
From that early meeting forward, my relationship with Gerda was… challenging—she told me I was illiterate in my native tongue and I worked to be a better writer; she took me by the ear after my comprehensive examination orals and told me that I understood American history but knew nothing of women’s history and I recommitted myself to being a better women’s historian; then when I came to her with my desire to study sexuality, specifically to do a dissertation involving lesbian history, she told me I couldn’t and I spent the remainder of my years in graduate school proving her wrong.
How do you make sense of a scholar and a teacher who disapproved of and actively worked against lesbian history as part of a women’s history [End Page 22] program during the early to mid-1980s, but who would also later in her career acknowledge what she learned from these struggles and articulate a theory of difference in her subsequent work that encouraged and incorporated sexuality as a foundational site for understanding and offering possibilities for historicizing difference? Who would tell me (and other students) that we couldn’t study lesbian history because we would never get jobs and it would not reflect well on the program but who would later proudly introduce me to one of my heroes Liz Kennedy as “one of my students” who “works on lesbian history”?
I’m not sure how you make sense of these contradictions, but I do know that my early understandings of class came from Gerda’s 1969 short essay, “The Lady and the Mill Girl,” and that my subsequent attempts to breakdown and unpack the simple canonical binaries that then framed explorations of race, class, and gender began with reading her early work on the Grimke sisters and were deeply influenced by her two volume women’s history manifesto, The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993). I also recall her explicit support for graduate students and non-tenure-eligible (NTE) faculty when the then Women’s Studies Program (WMST) disenfranchised all non-tenured faculty en route to becoming a department. During the tense conversations surrounding this move...