- A New World of Women and a New Language
Everything that explains the world has in fact explained a world that does not exist, a world in which men are at the center of the human enterprise and women are at the margin “helping” them. Such a world does not exist—never has.Gerda Lerner, “On the Future of Our Past”
Gerda Lerner spent a lifetime thinking about this question. She also came to understand that some women had been more marginalized than others. This [End Page 21] occasion celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the Schlesinger Library and Gerda’s life and work provides an opportunity to reflect on the role Gerda played in addressing the marginalization of African American women in particular and the costs of forgetting.
It is easy to forget how short is the temporal space that separates where women’s history is today and where it was before the 1960s. Perhaps the great outpouring of work in women’s history over the past four decades has somewhat dulled our sensibilities to the immense battles to which it is indebted. Gerda was at the forefront of those battles that promoted the fields of women’s history and black women’s history. It was a critical moment, when pioneering work was being done by scholars like Roslyn Terborg Penn, Darlene Clark Hine, Sharon Harley, Elsa Barkley Brown, Angela Davis, and Evelyn Higginbotham. The Association of Black Women Historians was founded (1979), and projects like the Black Women Oral History Project at the Schlesinger Library, which conducted seventy-two interviews of African American women, were helping to change the landscape of women’s history. As new and ever more exciting books on women’s history land on our desks every day, it is easy to forget or disremember the debt owed to those who were in the thick of those battles, whose numbers included my colleagues on this panel. Women’s history is where it is today because the scholarly community and the larger public came to recognize, if not always appreciate, as Gerda insisted, not only that “there is a female aspect to all history” but also that histories of that female aspect must include women of non–European majority descent.
Even if we did not always agree with her, the questions Gerda raised and the theoretical and analytical perspectives she brought to bear on them shaped those we might have better favored. Today the study of memory and forgetting is a large and intellectually vibrant field. This was not the case when Gerda entered the academy and asked how it was that the women had been forgotten. By the time she was done, she was asking questions less easy to answer. How was it that black women’s history had been so thoroughly discounted by the academy? How and in what ways had power sometimes even corrupted women? That women had “colluded in their own oppression by passing the rules of patriarchy on to their children of both sexes” troubled her as much as their exclusion from the historical narrative. Gerda Lerner’s life—lived out in bold relief—was also a constant reminder of the costs of such insistence. Did her own forgetting of her native culture count as collusion? The loss of her ability to speak her native tongue she could account for. “The Nazis,” she wrote, “robbed me of my mother tongue.” The rest was not so simple: [End Page 22] “The separation … the violent severing of culture, was my own choice.”26 The cost, she reckoned, was high.
My writing, my intense drive to become an “American writer” had pushed me into leaving the language of my childhood behind, never counting the cost. Through my writing, I had found the way back, but now the cost seems enormous. The return of the mother tongue has brought some healing of the other losses, but memory is different now. Before, what was lost, sank into a deep hole of oblivion—one covered it up and built anew forgetting the cost. Now memory includes what was lost and what it cost and what might have been had I been able to be writing...