- History and Gender
Gerda Lerner had a remarkable career as a public intellectual. No historian is more identified with the field of women’s history, which Gerda wrote about prolifically in a series of books that have had extraordinary influence in conceptualizing the field. Even a cursory glance at the titles of her works indicates that Gerda’s work as a historian has been broad and deep, not only focusing [End Page 16] on her primary subject, the history of American women, but branching out in time and place to include bold new syntheses of ideas using sources from antiquity, Western Europe, and other societies. In the Origins of Patriarchy she charts the emergence and development of patriarchy over more than two millennia of Western civilization. “I write to find out what I know,” Gerda wrote in the introduction to her autobiography, Fireweed. “I write to give form to chaos.”11 Those instincts communicated the deepest layers of her thinking to an engaged audience.
Another trait that marked Gerda’s contributions as public intellectual is her abiding concern with the world around her. The title of her last book says it succinctly—Living with History/Making Social Change. In her introduction Gerda explains why she wrote the book:
I want to show how thought and action have been connected in my life; how the life I had led before I became an academic affected the questions I asked as a historian; how the social struggles in which I engaged as an academic woman informed my thinking. … I want to trace how feminist teaching led to the development of “outreach” projects that influenced a large number of people, far beyond the reach of the academy.12
For Lerner activism and history came together. “I think whatever contributions as a feminist theoretician and thinker I have been able to make,” she wrote in Fireweed, “derive from my life experience, including my life as a Communist, my experience of persecution, and above all, my life as a grass roots organizer.”13
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, before she came to the study of history, Gerda was active in the Congress of American Women, a Marxist group interested in economic and consumer issues. She also participated in several events with the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women, clubs that were composed of radical Jewish women, many of them avowed Communists, who worked on behalf of civil rights, peace, and a myriad of political issues. Throughout the 1950s Gerda worked in support of the United Nations and peace; in the early 1960s she successfully blocked the construction of the Ravenswood nuclear power plant in Long Island City. During these years she actively supported civil rights for African Americans.
One of the opportunities to probe the connections between Gerda’s activism and scholarship and her distinctive background as Jewish refugee came for me in the early 1990s, when as director of Brandeis’s Women’s Studies Program, I invited Gerda to speak at a conference on the subject of US Jewish women’s history, the first of its kind. The intention of the conference was to explore questions concerning the narrative of American Jewish women’s history. [End Page 17] Did Jewish women have a significant history distinct from that of the Protestant majority? (At this point in time some senior historians posited that they did not.) To what extent did it meld with mainstream or minority narratives? How was this history influenced by diverse aspects of region, education, class, religion, race, sexuality, culture?
Gerda was the first person I called as I began to plan the conference. I asked if she would give the keynote talk, perhaps focusing on the connections between her identity as a Jew and her work as a historian, specifically as a historian of women. Gerda was not happy with the question, and quite unceremoniously, she hung up. But fifteen minutes later she called back. She said, first, that she had “never given it a moment’s thought,” but second, that this was one of the most profound questions she ever had been asked. The question prompted her to reflect on a connection she had hidden...