chapter  40
The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (Gerda Lerner, 1920–)
Pages 5

Gerda Kronstein Lerner was born in Austria to a Jewish pharmacist father and an artist mother, both of whom were assimilated Austrians and politically liberal. The family was financially well off. Lerner’s upbringing included a good secondary school education. Her feminist instincts were first aroused by the partial exclusion of women from Jewish temple services. She refused to participate and declared herself an unbeliever. When the Nazis marched into Austria in 1938, her father escaped. Lerner and her mother were imprisoned for six weeks as the Nazis connived to take over the family property. Lerner’s imprisonment was a brutal and threatening experience forced upon her as she reached her eighteenth birthday. Facing death toughened her for survival and provided material for later works of fiction like The Prisoners, published in 1941. In 1939, an expedient marriage secured a visa for Lerner and a way

out of Austria to the USA. While learning English she worked as sales girl, waitress, and X-ray technician. She divorced the first husband and married the screen writer and film maker Carl Lerner. After bearing and raising two children, she began higher education in her forties. A baccalaureate degree in 1963 from the New School for Social Research was followed by a doctorate in 1966 from Columbia University, where she began to pursue women’s history, not without support from colleagues but in an atmosphere of skepticism about the worth of her “exotic specialty.” On completion of her degree, she was advised for pragmatic reasons to identify herself as a social historian rather than a women’s historian, advice that was declined. She believed women’s history could not be folded into social history. From 1963 to 1979 she established an academic foundation for

women’s studies. She taught probably the first course ever in women’s history at the New School for Social Research. At Sarah Lawrence College she founded the first graduate program in women’s studies. She was co-founder of a Seminar on Women at Columbia University. After 1980 she became Robinson Edwards Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she developed a doctoral program in women’s history. Lerner’s achievements include many scholarly books, works of fiction,

three screen plays, a musical drama, and social activism on several fronts. She has long been active in the movement to expand civil rights for blacks as a race and women as a group. She is persuaded that the historical lot of women cannot be understood apart from race

and class. Her analysis of patriarchy relies in part on the Marxist idea of class consciousness that connects male domination of women with male power over the means of production. Lerner also pursued economic and social reform for women in the Congress of American Women. In 1969 she became co-president of the caucus of women historians. She has received many honors for her thought, scholarship, and activism on behalf of women. Notable are a prize from the Austrian Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, the highest award from the Austrian state. As an overview of Lerner’s thought and writing, the text under

discussion is a good introduction. The 12 chapters, preceded by Autobiographical Notes that explain what motivated each essay, address methodology, assumptions, and interpretations in women’s history, issues of class and race, how feminism as a social and political battle for rights and emancipation should be understood in relation to the scholarship of women’s history (the two are not the same), the changing objectives of feminism, interaction of black with white women, the experience of black women in America, both contemporary and during the anti-slavery movement, the culture of the housewife, women’s history and traditional historiography, and much besides. She decided that “oppression” of women, although historical fact, is of limited use to understanding the consciousness and lives of women at all levels of society: “More important are questions like: What were women doing? How were they doing it? What was their own understanding of their place in the world?” (xxv). On these and other matters, Lerner writes with intelligence, learning, clarity, and a grasp of distinctions in women’s history that further and deepen possibilities of discovery. A recurrent theme in her work is the historic prevalence of patri-

archy, which she views as a universal form of consciousness that defined for millennia who and what women are, what they can and must do, and how they should behave: “All conceptual models of history hitherto developed have only limited usefulness for women’s history, since all are based on the assumptions of a patriarchal ordering of values” (157). The emergence of women’s consciousness in the historical record has been slow. Women’s history has passed through several stages. The first was to identify outstanding women “missing from history,” to fill in the gaps: “The resulting history of ‘notable women’ does not tell one much about those activities in which most women engaged, nor does it tell us about the significance of women’s activities to society as a whole” (145). Exceptional women do not

encompass the majority of women and their varied experiences in a world that is patriarchal wherever one looks. The second level concentrated on women’s contributions in a

“male-defined society.” What have women added to various social, economic, and political movements in American history, from Progressivism to the New Deal? Always the movement was in the forefront, not the women making a contribution, although they are now included. But standards for judging the worth of any contribution came from men: “Margaret Sanger is seen merely as the founder of the birth-control movement, not as a woman raising a revolutionary challenge to the centuries old practice by which bodies and lives of women are determined and ruled by man-made laws” (147). “Contribution history” is not unimportant, but remains in the confines of traditional historiography: “When all is said and done, what we have … is … what men in the past told women to do and what men in the past thought women should be” (149). The third level looks to the actual experience of women, which

entails a fundamental shift in assumptions: “The most advanced conceptual level by which women’s history can now be defined must include an account of the female experience as it changes over time and should include the development of feminist consciousness as an essential aspect of women’s historical past” (161). The key issue for women is not liberation from patriarchal control through legal equality and rights, although such changes are essential, but achievement of autonomy: “Autonomy means women defining themselves and the values by which they will live, and beginning to think of institutional arrangements that will order their environment in line with their needs” (Ibid.). Implications are considerable for historical time frames. Period-

ization schemes of traditional history based on political and military events reflect a patriarchal bias:

Traditional history is periodized according to wars, conquests, revolutions, and/or vast cultural and religious shifts. All of these categories are appropriate to the major activities of men, especially political men. What historians of women’s history have learned is that such periodization distorts out understanding of the history of women. Events that advance the position of men in society, adding to their economic opportunities, their liberties and their social standing, frequently have the opposite effect on women.