- Gerda LernerLeftist and Feminist
Readers of this journal know that Gerda Lerner was the most influential figure in the development of women’s and gender history since the 1960s. But some among us, particularly younger historians, may not be aware of her position within the larger framework of the Left and of “history from the bottom up,” which made women’s history possible. So I want to trace her personal intellectual and political development from that perspective. To do that we need to start in Europe, because Lerner was always both a European and an immigrant who became, with an amazingly quick learning curve, American.
Born Gerda Hedwig Kronstein to a wealthy, secular Jewish family in Vienna in 1920, her family was typical of the Jewish bourgeoisie in central Europe but also unconventional, as their class status allowed. Her father Robert, an ambitious young army officer, married a woman with a substantial dowry, which he used to establish a profitable pharmacy and pharmaceutical factory. That wife—Ilona, mother of Gerda and her younger sister Nora—soon came out as a bohemian who practiced sexual freedom, vegetarianism, and yoga. This scandalized Robert’s mother who decided she had to “save” her granddaughters from their mother’s influence. Since they lived in separate apartments in the same large house, the two women fought frequently, and the girls observed the conflict between the two women. Ilona won one fight, naming Gerda’s younger sister Nora, after Ibsen’s play. But Ilona was miserable, furious with her mother-in-law, and bored with her husband. She wanted a divorce but under Austrian law would have lost her children to her husband (who would of course have turned them over to his mother) if she had insisted. So instead she negotiated a legal contract: she and Robert would present the public appearance of a marriage necessary to bourgeois respectability but would lead separate lives; Ilona was granted several months vacation away from home each year, and she thereafter lived in a room marked off from the rest of the apartment. The girls were, of course, raised by a string of nannies and governesses. Ilona, meanwhile, bought a separate studio where she entertained boyfriends, while Robert kept a mistress in a separate apartment where he spent most of his evenings.
Thus Gerda witnessed her mother’s striking female independence and was forced into her own independence as a child often without a parent and as an older sister. Meanwhile, she took in the entitlements and [End Page 31] tastes that the Kronstein class position allowed. She became a naughty girl, she recalled, misbehaving both at home and at school, even flirting with Catholicism. At age ten she was enrolled in a gymnasium for girls, where she thrived in the academically demanding environment. As a teenager she moved from resenting and defying her mother toward seeing her as a victim of social restrictions. During this time, she was reading Tolstoy and Gorky and listening to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.
From the 1920s, Austrian Nazis, encouraged by their German brothers, had been attacking workingmen, both Social Democrats and Communists, with increasing violence. Anti-Jewish propaganda and discrimination intensified. In 1934, armed civil warfare broke out, so close that Gerda could hear the machine gun fire from her home. Schoolmates organized her into participating marginally in left student activism—she read and passed on left newspapers and contributed to the “Red Aid” charity which helped the families of arrestees and exiles. In 1939, her worried father sent her to England to study English for the summer; hating her placement there, she managed to join a youth camp run by the eminent scientist and Communist J.B.S. Haldane, where she absorbed further Marxist ideas.
Many Jews began fleeing after Hitler’s seizure of Austria in March 1938, and her father joined them after being warned that he would be arrested. He had previously established a business in Lichtenstein, which enabled him later to bring his family there. The Sturmabteilung (stormtroopers) arrived at the Kronstein home soon after he left, searching first for subversive books, and then returning to arrest him. In his absence they...