- Social Movements
When we divided up what each of us would talk about and decided that my share would be Gerda Lerner and social movements, I thought to myself: Gerda was a social movement. Those who knew her will chuckle about this, [End Page 2] thinking of her forcefulness, but I mean it seriously too. Like a social movement she could change people. Unlike many scholars Gerda was a sensationally good inspirational speaker—easily the equal of the professional motivational lecturers who get fifty thousand dollars a talk for ratcheting up businessmen’s competitiveness. I have met many people who told me that listening to a Gerda Lerner lecture converted them to feminism or to women’s history.
This ability to motivate others was related to her ability to write so well—and in her second language no less. For an example, look at her extraordinary memoir, A Death of One’s Own (1978). Her husband, Carl Lerner, developed a malignant brain tumor while still a relatively young man. After nursing him through months of suffering, and feeling this love of her life gradually slip away, Gerda wrote a powerful and painfully honest account of their relationship, of his right to know the full facts of his illness and her insistence that his doctors respect that right, of the violence and mystery of death. She used that frank confrontation with death again in her last years: while living in the Oak-wood Home in Madison, she produced a wonderful photo-textual book about aging, which I also commend to you; and she led a workshop about aging and death with other residents of the home.
But Gerda did not much focus her prodigious energy on her own life; she had far greater ambitions. She meant to change the world. She had many concerns: racism, war, poverty, imperialism, religious intolerance, environmental destruction, authoritarian regimes—and the list only grew as she aged. But starting sometime in the late 1940s patriarchy became her chief enemy. And her weapon of choice was women’s history. In other words, women’s history for her was itself a social movement. She was a missionary and a preacher about the importance of women’s history. But since she believed that thinking about women would change all areas of history, she was always thinking about history overall: since the possibility of a more fully democratic society and policy required a fuller and more democratic understanding of the past.
There are many sayings about the importance of history-telling to the power structures of a society. History is written by the victors. History is the kingly art. An African saying goes, “Until the lions speak, history will always glorify the hunter.” Josephine Tey’s wonderful murder mystery, The Daughter of Time, suggests that the Tudor dynasty manufactured the crooked and evil image of Richard III that Shakespeare promoted. It was Gerda’s conviction that patriarchal control over history was fundamental to women’s subordinate status.
But she had no illusion that she could change the world simply by writing. Nor simply by teaching and lecturing. She was herself a social-movement organizer with a keen sense of strategy. In both her faculty positions—at Sarah [End Page 3] Lawrence and at the University of Wisconsin—she recognized that merely teaching women’s history courses would not be enough to build respect for the field, and she maneuvered to build women’s history programs with visibility and autonomy. At Wisconsin she had the chutzpah to set a condition on accepting the job offer—and I say chutzpah because the Wisconsin faculty thought they were doing her a great favor. Her condition was that the department had to hire a second faculty member in women’s history. (That position went to me, and for sixteen years I was Gerda’s closest colleague. So my remarks merge, to quote, the personal and the political.) The visibility of these programs, for which Gerda was an indefatigable saleswoman, attracted top-notch students willing to take risks, pursuing graduate work not merely as job training but also as a commitment to movements for social justice. Gerda organized the first, and possibly...