As a historian, Gerda Lerner has
learned to take the long view. It is a perspective that applies
equally to her work and her life. At 82, Dr. Lerner is considered
a godmother of women's history. Yet she certainly did not arrive
on the scene as a full-blown feminist historian. As she recently
set her table for lunch in her small brown house surrounded by
trees here, she recalled years of contradictory realities: of
being a housewife and a scholar, a victim of anti-Semitism and
a powerful women's rights advocate, at times prosperous and at
"I wanted to show people that whatever contributions I could
make as a historian and a theoretician of women's history and
women's studies came out of my practical life experiences,"
Dr. Lerner said, tucking into a salad of sliced eggs and anchovies.
"When you get older, you have a desire to look at your whole
life, not just the end result and not just a particular point."
Dr. Lerner, who is a professor of history emerita at the University
of Wisconsin at Madison, has just published her memoir, Fireweed:
A Political Autobiography (Temple University Press). The
title comes from the fireweed plant, which grows on disturbed
soil by roadsides and in fire clearings in the forest—a
flowering survivor, like Dr. Lerner. It is a "political autobiography,"
she explained, because she views her personal and her political
selves as inseparable.
Fireweed begins in the 1920's in Vienna, where Dr. Lerner
was born Gerda Kronstein, the first child of Ilona and Robert
Kronstein, an affluent Jewish couple. Her father was a pharmacist,
her mother a frustrated artist. The memoir details Dr. Lerner's
evolution as a political activist as she faced the Nazis in Vienna
and joined the Communist Party in the United States, and it examines
her personal relationships that both bloomed and withered against
the backdrop of sweeping historical events.
Dr. Lerner writes at length about her difficult relationship
with her mother, who survived a concentration camp but died in
Europe far from her estranged husband and Gerda, her elder daughter.
Dr. Lerner, arriving in the United States emaciated and emotionally
drained after fleeing the Nazis, made a sad first marriage so
she could stay in this country.
A happy second marriage to the filmmaker Carl Lerner produced
a son and a daughter and a quest to integrate the couple's political
activities with family life in New York City. With luck, they
survived the McCarthy era (she and her husband later severed their
Communist Party ties), and on the cusp of the 1960's, Gerda Lerner
was a housewife, writing a novel and other fiction and joining
causes, from improving schools to protesting nuclear weapons.
This memoir, which has received a bouquet of laudatory reviews,
ends in 1958, just as Dr. Lerner was beginning her life as a historian.
(Her creative writing, though published, never brought her fame.)
The short version of the post-Fireweed story is that
in 1958, when her children were well into their teens, Dr. Lerner
went back to school, initially to take a few college courses,
and by 1966 had a doctorate in history from Columbia University.
Her considerable reputation rests mostly on virtually creating
the field of women's history and then tirelessly agitating to
help her female colleagues win respect and find audiences for
In 1963, at the New School for Social Research, now the New School
University, Dr. Lerner taught what is believed to be the first
postwar college course in women's history. In 1972, as a history
professor at Sarah Lawrence College, she established the program
that became a model for graduate education in women's history.
Dr. Lerner now has 11 history books to her name. She was the
editor of the groundbreaking Black Women in White America:
A Documentary History, (Pantheon, 1972), one of the first
books to detail the contributions of black women.
"When it was published, it had enormous impact; it revealed
that there were the sources to write these kinds of histories,"
said Alice Kessler-Harris, a professor of history at Columbia
University, whom Dr. Lerner convinced to study women's history
when they first met at Barnard College in 1969.
In May Dr. Lerner became the first woman to receive the Bruce
Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Historical Writing from
the Society of American Historians. As Fireweed shows,
the road there was unpaved.
"I enter graduate school, and they teach me all these great
names, all these famous names, and they teach me about a world
in which women don't exist," she said with obvious irritation.
"And when I ask about it, one of their favorite sayings was
that unfortunately, most women were illiterate." She shook
"I came out of an experience where I had organized at the
grass-roots level, and I knew what these women could do and did
do," she said. "I was able to bring that knowledge in
the push for women's history."
Dr. Lerner peers out intently from big glasses and has a strong,
German-accented voice that demands an ear.
Her home is immaculate, a place of Danish Modern furniture, a
fluffy golden carpet, her mother's abstract art on the walls.
She has lived alone since her husband died in 1973. Photographs
of her four grandchildren dot the refrigerator.
A woman known for her impatience and no-nonsense manner, Dr.
Lerner said she was disdainful of memoir writing as a catharsis
rather than as an attempt to convey a larger meaning. She had
worked out her feelings toward everything she wrote about, she
said, but parts of Fireweed were painful to remember
and record. The kaleidoscope of images from its pages includes
a Gerda who celebrated her 18th birthday in a Viennese jail cell
with two gentile girls, her rations cut in half because she was
"I have given some readings of this chapter, and it still
upsets me very much," she said, her eyes half closing. She
and her mother were jailed by the Nazis in an attempt to make
them reveal the location of her father, who had temporarily fled
"I feel like a lot of people who have survived the Holocaust,"
she continued. "The people my age, we are the last generation
of eyewitnesses. Many of us have found it extremely painful to
think about this time and to speak about it even to our children
or loved ones. If we don't, then the eyewitness primary account
is lost, and the only people who will interpret this period are
people who don't have a clue. They weren't there."
Her commitment to political struggle probably arose, she said,
in Vienna in 1934, when she sat in her family's darkened apartment
and heard the machine-gun staccato of fascists shooting up housing
projects even as the radio newscasts said all was quiet. "I
said to myself, 'This I can't live with'; I think it started then.
I was 14 years old."
It was never a leap to understand why other groups she studied,
like black women, felt like outsiders, she said. Or even why women
too often fail to understand one another.
"I stayed home until my youngest child was 16 years old,"
she said. "I was a full-time mother. I have always felt that
feminists have to understand more about that experience. Whenever
you want to make any change in the community, from getting a stoplight
at a school crossing to putting in a park, the people who make
the change are your stay-at-home housewives all over the country,
all over the world."
After her work at Sarah Lawrence, Dr. Lerner began the University
of Wisconsin's graduate program in women's history as part of
its American history program. For a long time, it was among a
handful of places offering a doctorate in women's history. Now
there are hundreds of women's history courses taught at universities.
"With the scholarship, the program-building and the writing,
any of those three things would have made her an important historian,"
said Linda Gordon, a professor of history at New York University
who taught women's history at the University of Wisconsin in the
Dr. Lerner's body of work includes an ambitious two-volume study
titled Women and History, published by Oxford University
Press in 1986 and 1993. Volume I explored the creation of patriarchy
and Volume II the creation of feminist consciousness from the
Middle Ages to 1870. Volume I was particularly praised for its
range but criticized for the slimness of some of its evidence.
"I don't think anyone would take on a topic now like she
did about the history of patriarchy," Dr. Gordon said. "A
lot more research would have to be done, there would be fewer
generalizations." But as in writing a book like Fireweed,
Dr. Gordon said, Dr. Lerner showed an ambition that combined thorough
examination with unflinching honesty.
When asked whether women's studies were still needed, Dr. Lerner
laughed. "For 4,000 years, men have defined culture by looking
at the activities of other men," she said, putting on her
professorial voice. "The minute we started questioning it,
the first question was, 'Well, when are you going to stop separating
yourself out and mainstream?'"
"Give us another 4,000 years," she said, "and
we'll talk about mainstreaming."