Tags: gerda | lerner | women | rights

Late Women’s Rights Pioneer Gerda Lerner Is a Lesson in History

Friday, 04 Jan 2013 05:54 PM

By Megan Anderle

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Pioneering women's rights activist Gerda Lerner who is credited with founding the National Organization for Women died on Wednesday in Wisconsin at age 92.

Lerner also created the nation's first women's history graduate program in the 1970s at the University of Wisconsin.

"When I was faced with noticing that half the population has no history and I was told that that's normal, I was able to resist the pressure" to accept that conclusion, Lerner told the Wisconsin Academic Review in 2002.

After being told that only men were significant in history, she made it her life's work to prove otherwise. Not only did she single-handedly establish the nation's first graduate program, but she also authored several textbooks on women's history, like "The Woman in American History," and a number of novels, essays, and other scholarly works.

Lerner's son Dan said she died peacefully of old age at an assisted-living facility in Madison.

Here are five things you need to know about the women's history pioneer.

She survived the Holocaust: Lerner, who was of Jewish descent and born in Vienna, was imprisoned when Nazis gained power in the 1930s. Her 18th birthday was spent in a prison cell, where she was forced to stay for six weeks. She escaped to New York in the late 1930s.

Her name is synonymous with women’s history: Lerner wrote 11 textbooks on women’s history, earned 18 honorary degrees from universities, and played a role in establishing Women's History month. She was the first woman to receive the Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Historical Writing from the Society of American Historians. Among a long list of honors, in 1981 she was elected president of the Organization of American Historians. Since 1992, the organization has awarded the Lerner-Scott Prize, named in honor of her and Anne Firor Scott, another pioneer in women's history, for the best doctoral dissertation on women's history in the United States, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

She developed her strong sense of ethics as a child: Born into a privileged family, Lerner recalled watching her mother drop items on the floor and walk away, forcing servants to clean up the mess, she told the Wisconsin Academy Review. "I wanted the world to be a just and fair place, and it obviously wasn't — and that disturbed me right from the beginning," she said. After fleeing Europe during the Holocaust and living through horror, she came to the U.S. determined to fight for her beliefs.

She was also a historian of African-American women’s history: The subject was relatively unchartered in the 1970s, but Lerner helped edit "Black Women in White America," one of the first books to document the struggles and contributions of black women in history.

She gave back:
Lerner said that when she was 46 and enrolled in a doctoral program at Columbia University, she was told her age and preference for studying women's history would doom her career, according to Wisconsin's State Journal. After obtaining her degree, she established and funded a fellowship at UW-Madison that goes annually to a first- or second-year graduate student in women's history with a preference given to non-traditional students such as older women.

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