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  • Life with Gerda
  • Nancy Isenberg (bio)

Gerda was Gerda, totally irreproducible. I met her in 1981, the first year of the Women’s History graduate program at the University of Wisconsin. As her research assistant for two years, I became the resident expert on larger-than-life Gerda Lerner among my fellow students. I saw her close up; I saw her at home in her Mom jeans! I studied her as an anthropologist would visit a strange land.

Although many of my fellow students found Gerda “difficult,” sometimes impossible (or as one friend admitted, too much like her domineering father), I never felt that way. I saw Gerda as a challenge, and despite all her mishegas, she knew how to teach the things one needed to survive the equally strange world of academia.

Her best lessons emerged when she told you her “secrets” to thinking historically. She loved to share her research strategies, taking time to show you her filing system. It was a tactile engagement—folders brought out and inspected. She was deeply proud of her method. I remember the advice she gave me on my first archival trip. “Make sure you spend the end of the day just doing some stream-of-consciousness writing,” she said in her commanding voice. She insisted that I put my thoughts on paper, recording each day’s impressions. Her point was simple: research means writing, not just taking notes. The two are not separate stages. And she was right. I tell my archive-directed students the same thing.

She had a method for dealing with historiography, too. You had to sort and rank the ten most important books in your field. Ten was a nice round number. The purpose of this exercise was to size up the field, to critically approach the way the profession rewarded some books while ignoring equally important books. She had no patience for the trait many young scholars share: citing a book by reflex, genuflecting before a scholar’s work without revealing intellectual depth.

Gerda Lerner had her crazy moments. She had students write an assignment about themselves that she would then psychoanalyze. On the couch with Gerda—rarely a pretty sight. I decided to subvert the process, writing about a dream that I never actually had. She loved it, enjoyed interpreting it, and I had the pleasure of knowing that she had learned nothing about me. Gerda’s interest here always seemed out of character. She was not a deeply introspective person and wasn’t particularly good at reading people. [End Page 24]

But she did understand the profession—the good, the bad, and the ugly of academia. The reason she insisted on giving students the “tools” of research owed much to her political philosophy. She often said academia’s mystique should be withdrawn, layers of mystification lifted that otherwise kept the profession in the hands of a privileged few. In many ways, Gerda was a revolutionary version of the women’s education advocate Mary Lyon;1 she wanted her armed missionaries to storm the barricade and dramatically change the profession. Gerda was never gentle with her students: no mommying, no handholding. Graduate school was boot camp. I appreciated her realpolitik approach to the profession—others did not. But there was indeed a method to her madness. As she made her students acutely aware of the underbelly of academia, she removed our naïve faith in meritocracy and prepared us for what lay ahead.

Gerda was a fierce critic, sometimes quite brutal. She liked a fight, and she actually had more respect for the students who found a way to defend their argument. In every sense, she was a genuine disciple of the American historian and women’s rights activist Mary Beard, with a clear preference for the kind of women’s history that celebrated women building institutions. Yet she never told her students what to research or write. Gerda never built a Lerner school to fit her students into some identifiable mold.

Gerda admitted to me that she did not like to write harsh book reviews, even if she felt an author was wrongheaded. She felt it was incumbent upon women’s historians to defend...


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pp. 24-26
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