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Gerda Lerner

Fireweed
A Political Autobiography

Gerda Lerner

Political Engagement as Therapy for the Intellect

By Danny Postel for The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 May 2002

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 political consciousness?
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 now?
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.


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