- Women’s History for the FutureGerda Lerner’s Last Agenda-Setting
“Whatever contributions as a feminist theoretician and thinker I have been able to make derive from my life experience, including my life as a Communist, my experience of persecution and, above all, my life as a grassroots organizer.”—Gerda Lerner in Fireweed (2002)
Gerda Lerner never doubted that history was for the living. She believed passionately that women, in particular, needed knowledge of their past to guide their efforts to shape the future. A deeply political person, she had strong ideas about how that history should be written, ideas informed by her own peak organizing experiences in the 1940s and 1950s. In the last decade of her life, Lerner expressed alarm over what she perceived to be a turn away from study of the past to inform organizing for social transformation. In 2003, she undertook a systematic review of recently published books and articles in “U.S. Women’s History: Past, Present, and Future” (2004), a project which left her pleased that women’s historians were “producing work that recognizes race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality as important categories of analysis” (21). Yet she also concluded that “the subject of ‘class’ [was] being massively ignored.” She worried especially that comparatively few historians were studying “the collective struggles of women seeking to improve their situations” by changing American society and the state (22). One could translate her concern to say that with the spread of Foucauldian notions of power as enacted through discourse and operating in capillary ways, scholars seemed to be implicated in a more general social pattern: “a turning away from politics, from organizational and volunteer efforts, from grass roots and community activities” (23).
Lerner wrote these words late in George W. Bush’s first presidential term, a dispiriting time for social justice-minded scholars and citizens. In the wake of the Great Recession, however, the mass mobilizations that elected and re-elected the nation’s first African American president, the Wisconsin Uprising and the Occupy movement, and an empowered and aggressive political right, more U.S. historians—especially younger scholars—are turning to issues of class, capitalism, and social movement organizing. In fact, many never left those questions, which continued to inspire scholarship even in the historiographical moment that so concerned Lerner. Some historians are already producing works along the lines she urged, so in the notes I cite a suggestive few. [End Page 37]
For these scholars, particularly students of the post-1945 era, Lerner left a veritable last testament. In a 2003 interview on her years as a left-wing grassroots activist, Lerner shared some profound insights into how we might better understand women activists, movement organizing, and postwar America. Lerner’s overall theme was deceptively simple: “in general, I think that if people paid more attention to continuity in political work and less attention to stars and phenomenal events we would have a better image of what actually goes on in the world.” Her own formative experiences as an organizer taught her that dedicated individuals working with like-minded others, usually without media attention and in marathons rather than sprints, were behind many of the changes in public and organizational life that seemed to happen suddenly—when the powerful finally paid attention. Scholars of social movements, in particular, needed to think less about discrete organizations and stated goals than about the breadth of experience rank-and-file activists brought to them—and about how many continued to work for social justice after any given organization or cause faltered.1 Lerner believed that few scholars really understood how organizing for social change is done effectively. Her own activism, she said, changed not only the course of her life but also “the way I think.” It taught her that the best place to find women as change agents is “the grassroots.” When people once told her that there wasn’t a black women’s history to be found, for example, she knew they were wrong because she had known so many talented local African American activists, so she knew where to start looking for sources. Uncovering the history of such women, black or...