Gerda Lerner


Gerda Lerner (née Kronstein, 1920–2013) was an author, historian, and seminal figure in founding of women’s history. Lerner spent more than 50 years working to grow and define this field, also creating the first formal women’s history graduate programs. Lerner’s achievements in women’s history did not come out of an early interest in academia, however. In fact, it was somewhat by happenstance that Gerda ended up at the New School for Social Research, teaching what has conventionally been thought of as the first course in Women’s History in 1963, before she had even graduated with a BA degree.

Born into an affluent Jewish family in Vienna, Lerner had a turbulent early life. Her mother (Ilona Kronstein, née Neumann) was an artist, and her father (Robert Kronstein) a pharmacist. Outside of inter-family conflict, detailed in the historian’s memoir Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (2002), Lerner’s world became more unsettled in the wake of the Anschluss. In 1938, Lerner’s father–a Nazi resister–fled to Liechtenstein in fear of arrest. Gerda and her mother were then interned in a Nazi prison for six weeks. Lerner described this experience of imprisonment as “the most important experience of my life, because I didn’t think that I was going to come out alive.”[1] The Kronstein family reunited in Liechtenstein, from which Lerner alone emigrated to the United States to join her boyfriend Bernard Jensen.

At age 19 and soon married to Jensen, Lerner held a variety of jobs, ranging from secretary to waitress. She and Jensen quickly divorced, in 1940, and, while working in theater production, she met Carl Lerner, a theater director and film editor, whom she married a year later. The couple relocated to Los Angeles, so Carl could be closer to Hollywood. Gerda wrote screenplays while also raising two children (Stephanie, b. 1946; Dan, b. 1947), and both spouses were involved in the Communist Party (CP). During the McCarthy era, the couple was blacklisted, another authoritarian event impactful on Lerner’s later scholarship.

Although Lerner’s academic career began as an offshoot of her interest in writing, it adjusted to become the focal point of her intellectual and activist energies. Relocating to New York in 1958, Lerner enrolled in the Bachelor’s Program at NSSR, initially seeking out a study of historical methods to aid in a biography on which she was working. Quickly, however, she realized her focus at the school was not methods but women. When she could not find a class directly related, Lerner’s advisor (May Edel) told her to design the course herself. So, in 1963, before her undergraduate degree was complete, she had developed and taught what has often called the first course in women’s history. The first time it was offered in Fall 1962, the course was titled “Great Women in American History.” It did not gather enough enrollment to run. The next semester, as “The Role of Women in American Culture,” it ran with ten students. (Similar courses probably occurred across women’s colleges prior, but little documentation exists.) Although not well attended, this class might be seen as a cornerstone of Lerner’s subsequent career.

From NSSR, Lerner went on to get a MA and PhD in history from Columbia University, graduating in 1966, with a dissertation on the abolitionist Grimké sisters. She then taught briefly at Long Island University. From there, Lerner moved to Sarah Lawrence College, where, in collaboration with Joan Kelly, the first graduate program in women’s history was launched. In 1980, after the loss of her husband to an inoperable brain tumor, Lerner moved to University of Wisconsin-Madison, to establish the first doctoral program on the subject.

Lerner proved steadfast in her commitment to activism and was apparent in the programs she helped craft. Teaching women’s history was not enough; the topic needed recognition, legitimacy, and advocacy. At Wisconsin, for example, doctoral candidates were equipped to do outreach work in combination with teaching women’s history curriculum.[2]

Lerner extended this commitment to writing scholarship that not only unapologetically and repeatedly challenged the status quo but also framed history, and women’s history in particular, as a discipline that sought to bring awareness to structural injustice. In 1972, concurrent with the onset of the Sarah Lawrence program, Lerner edited her formative Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, a text recording and compiling the contributions of black women writers to the field for some 350 years. She then went on to write The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (1979) and The Creation of Patriarchy (1986), which similarly sought to embolden previously marginalized, overwritten voices.  

“The main thing history can teach us,” Lerner wrote,” is that human actions have consequences, and that certain choices, once made, cannot be undone.”[3]


[1] “Giving History a Future.” Chicago Tribune, May 9. 1993.…. Accessed September 7, 2018.

[2] Lerner, Gerda. Living with History/Making Social Change, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 34.

[3] Lerner, Gerda. Why History Matters, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 205.