Windy City Media Group Frontpage News


home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2022-06-08



Gerda Lerner founder of Women's Studies Movement dies at 92
by Victoria Brownworth

This article shared 3532 times since Tue Jan 22, 2013
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

Some people imprint you for life. Gerda Lerner was one of those people. As 2013 dawns, Women's Studies and Women's History are standard, credible, degree-producing disciplines. But when I was in college, Gerda Lerner was an almost mythic creature, doing something that no one else had done before: She was teaching women's history. And at one of the premier colleges in the country, Sarah Lawrence, not someone's living room in a little private salon.

Whoever heard of such a thing?

Lerner died Jan. 2 in Madison, Wisconsin. She was 92. She is considered one of the founders of Women's Studies, having created the first graduate program in women's studies in the country and providing the template for other programs across the U.S. over the years. Lerner also authored more than a dozen pivotal works of women's history, including Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, The Woman in American History, The Creation of Patriarchy and The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History. She had a phenomenal influence on the teaching of history and on the inclusion of women—and women of color and lesbians—in historical texts.

I met Lerner when I was in college. I had been sent by my university to the founding conference of the National Women's Studies Association (NWSA). I was the student representative for the committee attempting to found a women's studies department at our school. The conference was in San Francisco in January and it was my first plane ride.

My excitement was palpable.

Meeting Lerner was thrilling. Super smart and incredibly serious, Lerner was single-minded. Everything for her was a quest to put women in their rightful place on the map of "history" and she wanted everyone else to understand the importance of that struggle. It was easy to be pulled into the intensity of her aura and within hours of the conference starting she had a satellite of us budding women's studies majors hanging on her every word.

Everything she said was new to us. Everything she said was something we knew we should write down, commit to memory, pass on to others. She was like the Rosetta Stone of our history, decoding what we had never understood and never known. She was doing what lesbian scholar Mary Daly would later call "dis-covering" our history. She was the cartographer of our female lives and she was right there, in the room with us.

At that conference she said, "Women have always made history as much as men have. Not 'contributed' to it. Only they did not know what they had made and had no tools to interpret their own experience. What's new at this time is that women are fully claiming their past and shaping the tools by means of which they can interpret it."

She also told us that, "Everything that explains the world has in fact explained a world that does not exist, a world in which men are at the center of the human enterprise and women are at the margin 'helping' them. Such a world does not exist—never has."

It was magical. She was tipping the world back on its axis and re-situating women at the epicenter of history instead of on the perpetual margins.

And so when I heard of Lerner's death, on another frigid January day (on the plane ride back east from the conference we circled JFK airport in New York for nearly an hour; all but one runway was closed due to ice, but the plane was filled with women from the conference and we continued our talks across country), I was catapulted back to meeting her, to talking with her—literally sitting cross-legged on the floor at her feet—and to remembering how she changed my life with what she taught me—us—with her fervor for the truth about our lives.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune 20 years ago, Lerner said, "When I started working on women's history about 30 years ago, the field did not exist. People didn't think women had a history worth knowing."

Lerner was a larger than life figure. She crammed several lifetimes and careers into her 92 years. A refugee from the Nazis, Gerda Kronstein fled her native Vienna in 1939. Prior to that and after the Anschluss, Lerner had been active in the Resistance. She spent a short time in prison (she wrote about this in both a memoir and screenplay), an experience she did not think she would survive and which she said throughout her life was a touchstone for her activism and her writing.

Once in the U.S., betrothed to a man to whom she was briefly married in order to stay in the country, Lerner worked a variety of low-wage jobs including waitress and seamstress. She met Carl Lerner a few years after she emigrated. They married in 1941 and were together until his untimely death from brain cancer in 1973. In her 2002 memoir, Fireweed: A Political Autobiography, Gerda recounts that he helped her finesse her heavily accented English with repetitions of phrases like "Mae West is wearing a vest." She wrote about Carl's illness, death and her attempts to come to terms with it in A Death of One's Own.

A theater director, Carl Lerner was active in the Communist Party and Gerda joined him in his political work as well as writing.

The couple moved to Los Angeles where Carl worked as a film editor and screenwriter and Gerda wrote fiction, poetry and did other film writing. The two later collaborated on the iconic film, Black Like Me, co-writing the screenplay. Gerda also collaborated with playwright and poet Eve Merriam on a musical, The Singing of Women.

The blacklisting of Jews and Communists in Hollywood sent the Lerners back to New York where Gerda returned to school, earning a series of degrees, including a Master's and Ph.D. from Columbia which she completed in three years. While still an undergraduate at The New School, she taught what is considered to be the first course ever taught in women's history, "Great Women in American History."

It was Lerner's dissertation that propelled her into what would become her life's work. That book, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Authority,contextualized the women's and abolitionist movements in the U.S. I can still remember reading it in a graduate history seminar and thinking how it wasn't like any other history I had read. Because it was written from a female vantage point. That sounds glib so many years into the women's studies movement, but for those of us not attending a Seven Sisters college or a prestigious women's school like Sarah Lawrence, there was no such thing as women's history and no women teaching history. There were close to 25,000 students in the undergraduate school at my university and nearly 8,000 in the graduate school. But there was one—one—woman teaching in the history department when I was there. So when I went to the campus bookstore to pick up Lerner's Black Women in White America, which was being taught in my Pan-African Studies course, it was one of only a handful of history books by women and about women—a literal handful. Whereas now, due in no small part to Lerner's work, such histories abound.

It's impossible to convey the importance of Lerner's work and her influence. That book, Black Women in White America, still sits on the Gerda Lerner shelf in my library, a fat, yellowed paperback version (I was on scholarship), autographed by her. That book was one of the first books (following her Grimke sisters' dissertation) to catalogue—or even note—the accomplishments and lives of African-American women. It details the impact of slavery on black women, the affronts of being "property" and the accomplishments of a series of signal women in the quest for women's suffrage and also abolition of slavery. The book covers 350 years of the lives of black women.

The Creation of Patriarchy set me on a path to lesbian separatism for a time. In it Lerner deconstructs recorded history as a way to explore how patriarchy developed and how women became the second-class citizens they still are today. It's an absolutely amazing delineation of how patriarchy evolved in all its aspects—historical, cultural, artistic—from pre-history onward. It explores and explains why women were blotted out of history.

In that book Lerner writes, "What are patriarchal values? Simply the assumption that biological sex differences implies a God-given or at least a 'natural' separation of human activities by sex, and the further assumption that this leads to a natural 'dominance' of male over female."

That book was the first volume of her two-volume work Women and History (Oxford University Press). The second part, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to 1870 (that pivotal period where abolition and suffrage meet), details how women were oppressed by lack of education, lack of access to their own culture and society, lack of freedom and independence, the perceptions of biology as destiny.

Yet the massive works Lerner wrote and compiled are not her crowning achievement. Lerner became an archeologist and archivist of women's lives and women's history. She collected letters, diary excerpts, speeches made by women like Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and others previously unknown—the bits and pieces of women's lives that would begin to look like what they were: history of the other half of the human race.

Lerner was quoted in the Chicago Tribune in an interview 20 years ago saying, "In my courses [in graduate school] the teachers told me about a world in which ostensibly one-half of the human race is doing everything significant and the other half doesn't exist. I asked myself how this checked against my own life experience. 'This is garbage,' I said. 'This is not the world in which I have lived.'"

After Sarah Lawrence, Lerner taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison until she retired. She was also a scholar at Duke University and a professor Emerita at University of Wisconsin where she founded another of the first women's studies programs in the country. She is survived by a daughter, son and four grandchildren. As well as thousands of students like myself whose lives were forever altered by her work, her intellect and her activism.

In an interview with the New York Times after the publication of Fireweed in 2002, Lerner was asked whether women's studies were still needed. She replied to the interviewer with a laugh, saying, "For 4,000 years men have defined culture by looking at the activities of other men. The minute we start questioning it, the first question was, 'Well, when are you going to stop separating yourself out and mainstream? Give us another 4,000 years and we'll talk about mainstreaming."

This article originally appeared in the Lambda Literary Review, .

This article shared 3532 times since Tue Jan 22, 2013
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email


Gay News

PASSAGES Singer/actress Olivia Newton-John dead at 73 2022-08-08
- Olivia Newton-John—the Australian singer who charmed generations of viewers in the 1978 blockbuster movie Grease and had such music hits as "Physical," with both garnering many LGBTQ+ fans—died Aug. 8 at age 73, according to media ...

Gay News

PASSAGES Journalist Chuck Colbert passes away at 67 2022-08-08
- Journalist Charles "Chuck" R. Colbert—who had written for several LGBTQ+ publications, including Windy City Times—passed away June 30. He was 67. He was a freelance journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, according to his biography on The ...

Gay News

PASSAGES Lesbian writer/activist Elana Dykewomon dies at 72 2022-08-08
- Tributes have poured in following the death of Oakland-based esteemed lesbian writer/activist Elana Dykewomon, who passed away Aug. 7 at age 72, according to EuroWeekly. She received the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction in 1998 ...

Gay News

PASSAGES Chicago Latino Theater Alliance Executive Director Myrna Salazar dies at 75 2022-08-04
- The Chicago Latino Theater Alliance (CLATA) announced that co-founder and Executive Director Myrna Salazar passed away Aug. 3—two weeks after celebrating her 75th birthday. According to a press release, "Salazar ...

Gay News

PASSAGES Janan Lindley, wife of longtime activist/former bar owner Marge Summit 2022-08-01
- Janan Lindley died in hospice at home with her wife, Marge Summit, by her side July 29 of cancer. She was 82. Lindley was born June 20, 1940 and was raised in New Orleans. She studied at Loop College and from ...

Gay News

Reports: Chicago trans woman murdered in West Englewood neighborhood 2022-07-13
- A Chicago trans woman was attacked and died the late evening of July 11/early morning of July 12, according to reports. An individual was found with multiple stab wounds after Chicago Police Department (CPD) answered a ...

Gay News

Former Japanese prime minister dies after being shot 2022-07-08
- Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe died on July 8 after being shot while giving a campaign speech on a street in central Japan, CNN reported, citing public broadcaster NHK. Japanese publication Nikkei also reported that ...

Gay News

PASSAGES Local trans leader Maritxa Vidal 2022-07-06
- Maritxa Vidal, a leader in the Chicago trans community, has died at age 64. She passed away June 9. As a child, Vidal immigrated from Cuba with her family hoping to find a better life. Vidal is a longtime advocate for ...

Gay News

Dan Wolf, owner of The Bagel, dies at 77 2022-07-04
- Dan Wolf, the longtime owner of the iconic The Bagel Restaurant & Deli, has died at age 77. According to an obituary at, Wolf was of the few child survivors of the infamous Theresienstadt concentration ...

Gay News

Clela Rorex, first County Clerk to issue same-sex marriage licences, has died 2022-06-20
-- From a press release - BOULDER, CO - Out Boulder County and the family of Clela Rorex are saddened to announce the death of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer pioneering ally, Clela Rorex. On March 27,1975 Clela issued the first ...

Gay News

PASSAGES Onetime Gay Chicago publisher Craig Gernhardt 2022-06-15
- Craig Gernhardt—who once was the publisher of the now-defunct Gay Chicago—has died at age 61, according to Tribute Archive. His father, Gay Chicago Magazine co-founder and Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame inductee Ralph Paul Gernhardt, passed ...

Gay News

PASSAGES Legendary Chicago transgender activist, icon, mentor Mama Gloria Allen 2022-06-14
- Legendary Chicago Black transgender activist, icon and mentor "Mama" Gloria Allen died June 13 in her residence at Chicago's LGBTQ senior living facility Townhall Apartments in Lake View. The cause of death is unknown at this ...

Gay News

PASSAGES Transgender icon Mama Gloria dies at 76 2022-06-14
-- From a press release - Chicago transgender icon and activist Gloria Allen, who founded and ran a charm school for homeless trans youth and was the subject of the award-winning documentary "Mama Gloria" and the critically acclaimed play "Charm," has died ...

Gay News

PASSAGES Former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan dies at 76 2022-06-13
- Former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan has passed away "peacefully at home" after several lengthy illnesses at age 76, The Chicago Tribune reported. Ryan was the state's attorney general from 1995 to 2003, and was the ...

Gay News

Local trans icon June LaTrobe dies 2022-06-11
- June M. LaTrobe—a Chicago trans icon known for her activism—has passed away. She turned 81 on June 1. Being an advocate for the trans community, LaTrobe participated in many events (such as protests) and often took ...


Copyright © 2022 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.







About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Advanced Search     
Windy City Queercast      Queercast Archives     
Press  Releases      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast      Blogs     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam     
Privacy Policy     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.