The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery, 1967 (biography)
The Woman in American History, 1971
Women Are History: A Bibliography in the History of American Women, 1975
A Death of One’s Own, 1978
The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History, 1979
Women and History, 1986-1993 (2 volumes; includes The Creation of Patriarchy, 1986; The Creation of a Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to 1870, 1993)
Why History Matters: Life and Thought, 1997
Fireweed: A Political Autobiography, 2002
No Farewell, 1955
Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, 1972
The Female Experience: An American Documentary, 1976
Born Gerda Hedwig Kronstein, Gerda Lerner is a seminal figure in women’s history. She grew up in a bourgeois household in Vienna in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Lerner’s father, Robert Kronstein, owned a pharmacy, and her mother, Ilona Kronstein, was an amateur painter who occupied herself with cultural pursuits.
Lerner became interested in politics at an early age. In her autobiography, Fireweed, she states that her childhood taught her about resistance to authority and the necessity of questioning the values of those in power. Born a Jew, she became an agnostic at the age of fourteen and refused to go through with her bat mitzvah. In 1934, she witnessed the first of what were to be many political upheavals that affected her, a workers’ strike that was violently repressed by the Viennese government. As a student, she embraced various progressive political causes, sometimes secretly, and excelled in her studies.
In 1938, after the Nazi occupation of Austria, her father emigrated to Lichtenstein, where he had established a satellite business. Like many Jews, Robert Kronstein was concerned that Austria was becoming increasingly anti-Semitic under the Nazis during this period prior to World War II, and, like others, he made plans for his family to emigrate. Partly in preparation for such a departure, Lerner became engaged to a young medical student named Bobby Jerusalem, who was in the process of emigrating to the United States. Lerner and her mother were arrested and imprisoned shortly thereafter in an attempt by the government to pressure her father to return. They spent just over a month in prison, during which time Lerner turned eighteen, and they were released, with orders to leave the country. Ironically, although they were under deportation orders, they were at first unable to obtain emigration permits.
On September 9, 1938, Lerner, her younger sister Nora, and their mother left Austria to join their father in Lichtenstein. In April of 1939, having secured a visa from the U.S. consul in Switzerland after being sponsored by her fiancé and his family, Gerda Lerner arrived in New York City, while her mother remained in France, her father in Lichtenstein, and her sister in Switzerland. She married Jerusalem, who had changed his name to Jensen, within a week of her arrival in the United States. She and Jensen continued to be involved in progressive political activities, as they had while living in Vienna. The marriage was short-lived, lasting just a year and a half.
Shortly after the breakup of her first marriage, she met her second husband, Carl Lerner, in the world of the New York theater business. Carl was a Communist and a director and producer of small theatrical events at the time. He had recently been left by his wife. Gerda and Carl moved to Reno, Nevada, temporarily in order to obtain divorces from their respective spouses, and from there they went to Hollywood, where they both obtained menial employment. They were married on October 6, 1941. Lerner began writing and publishing short stories at this time, and her husband obtained a job as an apprentice film editor at Columbia Pictures. They had two children, Stephanie and Dan.
In 1946, Lerner formally joined the Communist Party and continued to engage in progressive political action, supporting such causes as the Civil Rights movement and the antinuclear movement. Her husband, already a Communist, was blacklisted in the Hollywood film industry, and the family moved back to New York in 1949. Lerner’s novel, No Farewell, which she finished in 1951 after working on it for twelve years, was rejected by numerous American publishers but accepted by an Austrian firm. The novel was translated into German and was well received in Austria. Lerner also wrote and published shorter pieces during this period, including performance works and pamphlets for the Civil Rights Congress. In 1954 she, along with five other people, started a short-lived cooperative publishing house. The English version of No Farewell was one of the books that the cooperative published.
In 1958 she resumed her formal education as a student at New York’s New School for Social Research. Planning to write a historical novel on the Grimké sisters, Lerner became involved in historical research. This experience made her realize that the work she really wanted to do was to promote the history of women. She refocused her initial idea of a historical novel and instead wrote a biography of the Grimké sisters, which served as her doctoral dissertation and was published in 1967. She was awarded a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1966.
Lerner has taught at many universities, most notably at Sarah Lawrence College, where she founded the first graduate program in women’s history, and at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she established a Ph.D. program in women’s history in 1984. Her most influential works are The Creation of Patriarchy and its sequel, The Creation of a Feminist Consciousness. In these books, Lerner argues for the existence of a prehistoric matriarchal culture. She asserts that the subjugation of women was the first form of institutionalized dominance and that other forms of oppression, such as classism and racism, grew out of men’s control over women. In The Creation of a Feminist Consciousness, Lerner discusses the rise of feminist responses to patriarchal oppression among women from the Middle Ages to 1870. She argues that women have been deprived of their history and that this deprivation has had a significant negative impact on the status of women in general. Her goal in producing these books is to bring that history back into the light so that women may be educated, encouraged, and emboldened by the struggles and achievements of their predecessors.
Among the many distinctions that Lerner has received are election as president of the Organization of American Historians. The Creation of Patriarchy won the Joan Kelly Memorial Prize. Lerner has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. She was also the 2002 recipient of the Bruce Catton Prize for lifetime achievement in historical writing and is a founding member of the National Organization for Women.