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Gerda Lerner

A Political Autobiography

Gerda Lerner

Book of the Day

By Diane Patrick for Publishers Weekly, 25 June 2002

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.


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