A few years ago, an intellectual historian uncovered the story of Betty Friedan’s formative years as a Popular Front journalist and activist in the 1940s. Daniel Horowitz wrote with admiration, believing he was deepening the story of “second wave” feminism by restoring its radical roots. Friedan balked. She refused him permission to quote her unpublished papers, mocked his claims and intimated a lawsuit. “Annoyed,” she even countered with a memoir of her own that acknowledged her connection to the left milieu around the Communist Party and to the radical labor movement but denied that the connection mattered much to her later feminism.
Not so Gerda Lerner. This leading historian, who virtually created the field of women’s history, is now, in her 80s, boldly embracing her radical past. “Whatever contributions as a feminist theoretician and thinker I have been able to make,” Lerner announces in this haunting memoir, “derive from my life experience, including my life as a Communist, my experience of persecution and, above all, my life as a grassroots organizer.” Where Friedan, a journalist, saw danger in exposing the past, Lerner, a historian, sees value in it. “I do not want to end my life within a closet of my own making,” she says. In speaking so forthrightly about her life, Lerner helps rewrite the history of second-wave feminism to honor its ties to antifascist, left-wing, labor and antiracist activism prior to the 1960s.
Less famous than Friedan, Lerner may nonetheless leave the more lasting imprint on intellectual life. She has been a pioneer in the field of women’s history since she taught the first-known college women’s-history course in the United States, in 1963. Since then, she has become a leading emissary from the academy to the public, a precocious public intellectual. The combined sales of her dozen books go well into the hundreds of thousands. She wrote about the struggles of working-class “mill girls” before the new labor history got started. She published one of the first major works of black women’s history in 1972, when most white intellectuals had no clue there was such a history and when black nationalist preoccupation with “black manhood” was silencing black women’s concerns. As others picked up the baton in these areas, Lerner moved back in time. Defying the pressure in American academic life toward narrow specialization, she trained herself in ancient history and carried out a monumental research project to discover the origins of patriarchy. Then she documented the rise of feminist consciousness over 1,300 years, in order to show what women needed to challenge male supremacy and why it took so long.
Never the ivory-tower type, Lerner from the outset tied research to activism and institution-building. Indeed, her influence comes as much from that institution-building and public speaking as from her writing. Convinced that knowledge of their history was the key to women’s emancipation, she worked to reshape the profession as well as the wider world. In 1972 she established the first MA program in women’s history at Sarah Lawrence College. Eight years later, she created the first PhD program in women’s history at the University of Wisconsin (full disclosure: I earned my degree from this program, but Lerner was not my dissertation director). Lerner also led in establishing Women’s History Month, organizing the nation’s archives to collect sources about women, advising colleges and universities on how to improve the status of women, and more. This year, her talent for engaging a broad audience was honored with the Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Historical Writing from the Society of American Historians, while the Organization of American Historians recognized her “intense work in community organizations and her brilliant scholarship” with a Distinguished Service Award.