- Remembering Gerda
I attended graduate school and became a historian because of Gerda Lerner. I saw Gerda for the first time at the 1981 Berkshire Conference at Vassar College, when she presented a portion of her book Creation of Patriarchy I (1986). I was overcome by admiration for this strong, smart, woman and her seemingly unflappable poise in the face of questions about her research on the ancient history of slavery. Not having any idea about how one went about getting admitted to graduate school, I made a list of every place with which I had seen Gerda’s name affiliated. So I applied to Columbia, the New School, Sarah Lawrence, and the University of Wisconsin—places that did not even have PhD programs in some instances. My rationale, my hope, was that one of these applications would reach a department where Gerda was actually on the faculty. My application essay declared Gerda’s work to have been formative for my budding historical sensibilities.
Once I matriculated at Wisconsin, Gerda became my advisor. Our relationship had its ups and downs, but it persisted. I learned that she could be literal and formal, as in the time she invited several students over to join her in her new hot tub. She insisted that we leave the alcoholic drinks to the side before going into the tub—apparently, when she had read the safety instructions, they included warnings about the danger of consuming alcoholic beverages in the tub (although they apparently said nothing about drinking immediately before entering the tub). [End Page 26]
I also discovered that once Gerda realized I was as stubborn as she, she was willing to give me the space I needed to follow my own intellectual path. She initially doubted by abilities to take the program’s Women’s History Week slide show on the road to public audiences. I told her in no uncertain terms that, having been a high school teacher for two years, I felt well qualified to perform this task. This was the first time I pushed back against her (although not the last), and it earned me her respect. Building on that foundation, I wrote my Master’s Thesis under her direction, took my preliminary examinations, and began my dissertation. She was not thrilled that I wanted Charles Cohen, himself a student of Winthrop Jordan and a diligent and detail-oriented scholar, to join my dissertation committee as a co-supervisor, but she ultimately agreed. Gerda’s great intellectual strength was less in the details of my project, which was not really her main field of expertise, but in her insistence that I write clearly and continue to keep the big picture in view. I believe that she was proud to have one of her students write about a formative era in the history of North American slavery, a topic clearly inspired by and connected to her own work in Creation of Patriarchy.
My relationship with Gerda had its share of conflicts and stormy moments, but it also had moments of companionship. As I look back, I can see how often she tried to offer support when she thought I needed it. When I suffered through years of infertility treatment, she reminded me that bearing a child was only one of many forms of creativity. When I experienced a serious bout of depression, she was reassuring and comforting that I would emerge on the other side.
Gerda butted heads with her students and supported her students. She could be a devastating critic but she also took great joy in our accomplishments. She modeled several important qualities that I struggle to hold on to in my own life: to believe, stubbornly, in the value of your own work; and to work, stubbornly, to find the appropriate form and venue to make it matter in the world.
This semester, my students discovered the amazing chronicle of the Grimke Sisters. I myself am in the early stages of a project on abolition, human rights, and the cultural history of “the human,” in which I regularly encounter Gerda’s legacy as a scholar. Somewhere out there, Gerda knows that her life made a...