After Gerda Lerner’s death in January 2013 it seemed obvious that any event to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America that same year ought to be devoted to honoring Lerner. The two were intertwined in more than one way. Lerner’s career as a historian coincided with the decades of the Schlesinger Library’s major growth. Her force in developing the field of women’s history made the collections of the Schlesinger Library grow and made them important. She was a speaker on the program for the library’s fortieth-, fiftieth-, and sixtieth-anniversary events. Characteristically, she closed the program of the fiftieth anniversary with decisive and confident words: “Patriarchal ideas are obsolete and powerless. Feminist ideas, conversely, are future-oriented and powerful.” Lerner decided to give her papers to the Schlesinger Library in 1975, and now, with the generous help of her children, Stephanie Lerner Lapidus and Daniel Lerner, her collection is complete.
The founding years of the library and the career of Gerda Lerner are very strongly linked through Mary Ritter Beard’s imprint on both. Historian Mary Ritter Beard deserves the name of women’s history pioneer. Better known in the first half of the twentieth century as coauthor with her husband, Charles Beard, of several best-selling works on US history, she herself wrote about women’s history and in the 1930s founded an ambitious project to establish a World Center for Women’s Archives. Her motivation was more than archival. She believed that building a women’s archive was a “way to recapture the [End Page 1] imaginative zest of women for public life.” The “collection in one place of the data on women, including the rich personal material such as letters, diaries, memoranda,” was crucial because a well-furnished historical record would empower women and enable them to assert their full force in social life.1
Beard’s insistence that recapturing women’s history would revive contemporary women’s power to act inspired Gerda Lerner, who admired Beard’s efforts tremendously. Lerner revered Mary Beard as a model and lone forebear. In Lerner’s capacious volumes The Creation of Patriarchy and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, she explicitly aimed to complete a project of historical recovery begun by Mary Ritter Beard. And Beard equally influenced the development of the Schlesinger Library. After the World Center for Women’s Archives project fell apart in 1940, Beard remained willing and able to help other fledgling projects. She was the obvious person to call in for advice once Maud Wood Park, a leader in the suffrage movement, gave her papers and memorabilia to her alma mater Radcliffe College in 1943—and Radcliffe College president Wilbur K. Jordan made that gift the nucleus of a new Women’s Archives. Besides counseling President Jordan, Beard also handed over some of the collections she had amassed for her World Center, becoming an unofficial founding mother of the Radcliffe Women’s Archives (renamed Schlesinger Library in 1965).2
To honor and celebrate the significance of Gerda Lerner in the field of women’s history, it seems necessary also to reflect upon developments in the field over the past four or five decades. To do that, I called upon five eminent historians, each having an angle of focus in her scholarship different from the others. Each of them knew Gerda Lerner well, in a context or at a time that was distinctive. The aim was to create an assemblage of ideas, theories, and reflections combining historiography with personal memory. The results follow here.
nancy f. cott is the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard University. From 2002 to 2014 she was also the Pforzheimer Family Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her work in US history focuses on gender issues. She has written or edited seven books, including The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780–1835 (Yale University Press, 1977), The Grounding of Modern Feminism (Yale University Press, 1987), A Woman Making History: Mary...