The writing of one's life can offer
an "explanatory myth" at worst and an "entertaining
tale" at best, says Gerda Lerner, a professor emerita of
history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
In Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (Temple University
Press), she recounts the prehistory of her career in what she
calls the "intellectual revolution" of women's history,
a field on which she left a pioneering mark with such works as
The Woman in American History (1971), The Creation of Patriarchy
(1986), and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993).
Q: You grew up in Austria in the 1920s and
'30s. How did that experience influence the development of your
A: From an early age, I experienced revolution,
counterrevolution, military occupation, and fascism. I was imprisoned,
I was a hostage—I lived in great danger. I was essentially
struggling for my life. Living through this makes you very much
aware of politics as a force in life and of the need to struggle
for human rights.
Q: After the war, in America, you were active
in the Communist Party for a time and then left. You write that
it took you some years "to think [your] way out, not of one
political movement only, but out of Marxism, the theory."
A: There was a period when, though I was disillusioned
with the Communist Party, I was still a Marxist. Then, after 1958,
when I began to study academically, I began to have serious problems
with the doctrine in regard to women. It was my feminism that
made me realize that Marxism was wrong.
Q: You went many decades without publicly
discussing this chapter in your life, the Communist years. Why
A: Well, I'm 81 years old—when am I going
to do it if not now? I felt uneasy about evading the issue based
on fear. I felt that I owed it to myself and to the people who
have learned from me and respect me to tell them the whole story.
And I feel that there is something to be learned from my story.
Q: What, exactly, would you say that is?
A: That active political engagement is good for
thinking. If you are engaged in the world, you have a way of testing
your thinking. I tested Marxist thought. It didn't work.
Q: At the very end of the book, you say
that for many years you felt that you had nothing to apologize
for, but you go on to say that you feel differently about this
now. Why the change?
A: We learned things that we did not know at
the time. I defended the Hitler-Stalin pact [over which thousands
of Communists left the party] at the time, and I'm sorry I did.
The decisions I made in my life seemed to have a good logic then,
even if 60 years later, that logic may not stand up.