In the early seventies, in my freshman
year of college, one of the books we were required to purchase—for
what course, I forget now—was Black Women in White America:
A Documentary History, edited by Gerda Lerner. At the time,
Dr. Lerner, credited with teaching the first post-war college
course in women's history, was director of the graduate program
in women's history at Sarah Lawrence College.
I remember being impressed by this 150-year anthology of rare
letters, journal entries, articles and speeches by black women
about themselves, and grateful that someone spent the time sourcing
and compiling this material. Indeed, I have used the book, for
both research and inspiration, to this day.
So when I learned that Dr. Lerner, now in her early eighties,
had written an autobiography, Fireweed: A Political Autobiography
(Temple Univ. Press, $34.50), I wanted to speak with her about
it. In a starred review, PW Forecasts explained the meaning of
title: "The hot-pink blossoms of the fireweed, which can
only bloom on burnt-over ground, provide an apt metaphor for this
memoir, one certain to find a deserved place in every collection
of indispensable works of women's history."
Dr. Lerner spoke with me by telephone from Wisconsin, where she
is the Robinson-Edwards Professor of History, Emerita, at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison. Last month, she became the first
female recipient of the 2002 Bruce Catton Prize of the Society
of American Historians, awarded for Lifetime Achievement in Historical
Writing. In April she made a cameo appearance—as herself—signing
copies of Fireweed on the ABC-TV prime time show, Once and Again.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
A: I felt that people know me for my work in
history, but they don't really know about how I got to be the
person I am. I'm not just a historian—I'm a survivor of
the Holocaust and I've lived through some different times in history.
I felt I should talk about that. I have had a lot of honors and
acclaim—but I feel that what made me a pioneer is my earlier
life. And I felt that my life experience has a lot of relationship
to today. I wanted to tell about a long-range commitment to social
change and making an imprint in your time.
Q: You chose to write only a partial autobiography,
which ends in 1958. Did you deliberately set that parameter or
did the biography evolve that way?
A: From the outset, I only wanted to write about
my life before I became an academic. Because I have a long vita
as an academic—it's an open book—a lot of people know
me for that and not anything else.
Q: You grew up a white girl in Vienna in
the 1920s; I grew up a black girl in the south Bronx in the 1960s.
Yet, reading your childhood observations, secret thoughts, resentments
and indignations, I identified deeply with them. Is that what
women's history is all about?
A: It's certainly one of the things. There are
things that are universal to all women. Certainly the experience
of being a very observant and a very active girl and being told
that's something you are not supposed to be—that's discrimination.
That happens all over the world. The experience I had of being
a person of privilege then being redefined by other people—one
minute I was a person of privilege then the next [I was not]—that
taught me about redefinition. My book Black Women in White America
came from that: I [was writing about] two women abolitionists,
and in the course of my research I found primary materials. Yet,
according to history, black women didn't exist at all.
Q: You resolved, as a young girl, to stop
believing what adults told you. Do you see a parallel between
that resolution and your interest in women's history?
A: Yes. I think that the fact that I'd been
a political resister from childhood on made it possible for me
to resist whatever the common doctrine was. [According to history,]
I was told there were no women. But I had lived 42 years to witness
that that was so wrong.
Q: Why do you think that the discipline
of women's history did not exist as a field of study when you
began your career?
A: Because men wrote history and they considered
only what men did.
Q: What place do you think Fireweed will
have in the works on women's history?
A: I've had letters from people who use the
word "inspirational." This book has a very wide appeal,
not just to people interested in women's history but also those
interested in African-American history and Jewish history. I think
it's quite unique in women's history. I've had quite an unusual
life. There are very few women in the women's history profession
who went from activism to academia. I think that's why people
write autobiographies: others learn lessons from your life.