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Gerda Lerner Dies, Women's Studies Trailblazer

Professor Gerda Lerner, in a handout from the University of Wisconsin, Madison
University of Wisconson, Madison
Professor Gerda Lerner, in a handout from the University of Wisconsin, Madison

Historian Gerda Lerner, a pioneer in the creation of women's studies as an academic discipline, has died in Madison, Wisc. She was 92.

A prolific feminist author, Lerner wrote texts that traced the history of patriarchy going back thousands of years to more modern topics, such as African American women's history. Her many books included a two volume work called 'Women in History': the first book examined the history of patriarchy and the second dealt with the start of feminist consciousness.

Her early life was extraordinary. As a Jewish teenager in Austria in 1938, she and her mother were imprisoned by the Nazis in a bid to pressure her father to return. He was able to eventually secure their release, and she soon relocated to New York, says the New York Times.

Lerner said these experiences shaped her later decision to focus on gender studies. "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, reports the Associated Press.

She completed her doctorate in history at Columbia University, and taught women's studies at the New School for Social Research, notes the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard. Lerner went on to create a graduate program in women's studies at Sarah Lawrence College, which says she influenced her first students to lobby Congress for the creation of Women's History Week, later becoming a month-long observance.

She went on to teach at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1980, where she established a doctoral program in women's history, says Reuters. The Organization of American Historians created the annual Lerner-Scott Prize, named for her and historian Anne Firor Scott. It's awarded to the best doctoral dissertation in U.S. women's history.

Lerner was married to theater director Carl Lerner, says the AP: the couple worked to unionize the film industry and in the U.S. civil rights movement. Together they turned the book, 'Black Like Me' into a film in 1964. Written by southern journalist John Howard Griffin, it tells his story of his life disguised as a black man in the American South.

She was also an original member of the National Organization for Women. In the 2002 Times article, Lerner was asked about the future of women's studies:

"For 4,000 years, men have defined culture by looking at the activities of other men," (Lerner) said, putting on her professorial voice. "The minute we started questioning it, the first question was, 'Well, when are you going to stop separating yourself out and mainstream? Give us another 4,000 years and we'll talk about mainstreaming."

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Korva Coleman is a newscaster for NPR.

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