- Surviving with Gerda
The morning I heard that Gerda Lerner had died I stared at the email, unbelieving. My incomprehension came not from naiveté about aging, illness, and death. At fifty-three, I am the eldest woman on one side of my family, nearly the eldest woman on the other, and this has been the case for a long time. My family and I, however, are mere mortals. Gerda was in another class entirely; she survived—over and over and over and over again. Cancers, lung disease, a hospital stay in Austria where her organs had begun failing, were each a part of her old age, and in each case she came back. When I heard later that she died within a day of having been placed in what could only be called a “nursing home,” with no chance to resume a creative, productive life, it made a bit more sense, but only a bit more.
I met Gerda Lerner in 1983, as a new graduate student who entered Wisconsin’s History department as a Europeanist, but knowing as well that I wanted to study women’s history. So I signed up immediately for one of Gerda’s courses. That class and Gerda’s insistence that I attend functions of the Women’s History Program changed everything about my future. The women Gerda attracted to the program were instantly attractive to me. Activists, intellectuals, and bright lights all, the energy of that group screamed that this was the academic and political “home” I never knew I was missing but for which I had always longed. Once Gerda convinced me to formally enter the program as an Americanist, my learning curve was so high that I can remember literal epiphanies, a reorganization of thought and feeling so profound that they forever altered the way I moved through the world. Gerda inspired, created, and administered that group, and for this gift and others I will be forever grateful.
Yet memories of Gerda Lerner’s tenacity in fighting the good fights must be joined with memories of her fighting more than a few bad ones. She was, to put it bluntly, a control freak of epic proportions. Not one of us in the Program made good on our collective and individual determination to avoid at least one bout of uncontrollable sobbing while in her office. We watched new recruits come in blithely touting their capacities to handle her and waited for their respective reduction to blubbering idiots, when we would swoop in to comfort and offer a few “we-told-you-sos.” Gerda had a poster on her office door of a Raggedy Ann doll halfway through an old washing ringer with a quote underneath: “The Truth Will Set You Free.” We of course identified literally with the rag doll as we sat in the hallway waiting [End Page 28] to hear her verdict on our work or her plan for our next semester. When someone brave enough to say so told Gerda that the poster was terrifying, Gerda could not understand why. For Gerda, her version of intellectual and political or very personal truth was her gift to the world. Her manner of delivery, and great certitude on every question imaginable, accounts both for her true greatness and for a self-styled brutality in social relations that often left her lonely and confused about why this was the case.
Gerda Lerner thus planted the seeds of her undoing in the program itself. The gathering of these extraordinary women, and Linda Gordon’s and Jeanne Boydston’s entrance into the faculty, translated into Gerda losing control over her own creation. We collectively and successfully mutinied over Gerda’s decision to disinvite Blanche Cook, Liz Kennedy, and Madeline Davis for our first-ever “lesbian” themed Women’s History Week. We collectively demanded not only that the curriculum include lesbian history, but that she cease treating lesbians in the program as a lavender menace that endangered its respectability. My personal break with Gerda occurred on a cold Wisconsin morning. I had signed up to TA for another professor weeks earlier and found a note from her in my box asking if I...