Gerda Lerner, the founder of University of Wisconsin’s Gender and Women’s studies graduate program, died this month at age 92, leaving behind a strong history and legacy with her students and the university.
Lerner, who was formerly a UW women’s studies professor, Holocaust escapee and author, died Jan. 2 in an assisted living facility in Madison, according to longtime friend and UW Professor Florencia Mallon, who chairs the history department.
“Gerda Lerner was the single most important person in the creation of women’s history as a field,” New York University professor and colleague Linda Gordon said.
Gordon taught with Lerner from 1984 until Lerner’s retirement from UW’s Program in Gender and Women’s History in 1991. The two continued working together until 2000.
According to Gordon, Lerner began her efforts to create a women’s history field before coming to UW, but made the biggest impact in Wisconsin.
At UW, Lerner established a graduate doctorate women’s history program that produced a whole generation of scholars who are now the leaders in the field, Gordon said.
“They were extraordinarily successful,” Gordon said.
As directors of UW’s women’s history program, Gordon and Lerner produced more than 40 graduates, the majority of which are professors at other colleges and universities.
Gordon said Lerner’s students’ achievements helped overcome what she said were the sexist undertones of opposition to her program.
Lerner, who was born to a Jewish family in Vienna in 1920, and was imprisoned by Nazis before immigrating to the U.S. in 1939, began as a pioneer in the field of women’s studies in the late 1950s, according to Mallon.
Earning her masters and doctorate from Colombia University in 1966, Lerner became a founding member of the National Organization of Women, Mallon said.
“She was really one of the first people who studied women’s history, who considered the possibility women’s history could be a field,” Mallon said. “She was the kind of person who basically made the path for the rest of us. She essentially led the charge to create the field itself.”
The opportunity to initiate a women’s history program at UW opened when the university needed to fill its vacant Robinson Edwards Chair in the history department, which was reserved for a female, Mallon said. Having already established a women’s history program at Sarah Lawrence College, Lerner emerged as the best candidate for the position.
Mallon said to this day, and largely because of Lerner’s legacy, women’s history remains an integral field of study for UW and other colleges worldwide.
“[Women's history] is about half of the human race,” she said. “It’s about the story of half of the human race that for many, many years was sidelined or marginalized, and whose story is absolutely central to how human history has evolved.”