Working women, especially Negro women, labor not only under the disadvantages imposed by the feminine mystique, but under the more pressing disadvantages of economic discrimination.Gerda Lerner to Betty Friedan, 196341
It is a measure of the impact of Gerda Lerner—the activist, memorialist, writer, historian, feminist, and institution builder who passed away on January 2, 2013, at the age of ninety-two—that both the American Historical Society and the Organization of American Historians have celebrated her scholarship and life since her death with multiple panels. In 1981 she served as president of the oah, which named the Lerner-Scott Prize for the best dissertation in women’s history after her. Lerner brought to the study of history an understanding of class and race and the willingness to speak out for what she believed was right, as seen in her comments to Betty Friedan, whom she knew from left circles, on the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Unlike Friedan, Lerner eventually, in Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (2002; a book Eileen stayed up all night reading when traveling back from the Berkshire Conference, where it was released), would admit to a communist past, which included involvement with the Congress of American Women, which organized working-class mothers and housewives around the point of daily activities that theorists name social reproduction. Lerner never forgot the triple (race, gender, and class) oppression of black women.
Perhaps that is why Eileen found her work so inspiring. Around 1971 Gerda came to Brown, where Eileen was a graduate student, to talk about The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina (1967). What really made a difference for Eileen was teaching Black Women in White America as soon as she could after it was published in 1972, a book that showed the way to transform US women’s history through the experiences and thought of black women. Through pioneering essays on class divisions between women and on the significance of domestic labor, collected in The Majority Finds Its Past (1979), Lerner offered strands that Eileen and many others would weave into an intersectional approach to women’s labors. Thus, historian Dolores Janiewski, a former student [End Page 27] of Gerda’s at Sarah Lawrence who now teaches in New Zealand, underscored Gerda’s recognition of the burdens of the home when recounting contrasting responses to a question on the most important invention for the liberation of women that Gerda posed to her class. While the students said “the pill,” Gerda replied, “the laundromat because now men could do the laundry.”
Gerda sparked the creation of the Coordinating Committee of Women in the History Profession (ccwhp, now the Conference Group on Women’s History, the cgwh), for which Eileen would serve as newsletter editor and president over two decades later. She had the privilege of editing Gerda’s personal narrative for a collection that traced the history of women’s history through the voices of ccwh leaders. As Gerda concluded her contribution, “We have proven, over and over again, that women make history and have always made history. In so doing, we have had to challenge the exclusionary and outdated patriarchal structures of academic institutions. Life and thought have merged; transforming knowledge has led us to transform institutions.”42
Both the symposium in this issue and recollections elsewhere, as well as those of you who shared your thoughts with us, underscore Gerda’s sometimes difficult but always galvanizing presence.43 One of the challenges of memorializing is acknowledging a person’s accomplishments, attending to her uniqueness, and yet avoiding creating an image of a remarkable figure untouched by context and outside of the vibrant collective process of knowledge-making. Gerda Lerner was a prolific and insightful writer, an organizer both in and outside of academic institutions, and a dynamic personality, described as “charismatic,” “fierce,” “outrageous,” “independent,” and possessing “chutzpah” by those who knew her well. She was also part of numerous intellectual and activist movements that helped shape her as a leader and thinker. She was a friend and colleague who talked with those she allied herself with for hours and hours, making sense out of circumstances and planning...