Gerda Lerner, a scholar and author who helped make the study of women and their lives a legitimate subject for historians and spearheaded the creation of the first graduate program in women’s history in the United States, died Wednesday in Madison, Wis. She was 92.
Her death, at an assisted living facility, was confirmed by Steve J. Stern, a history professor and friend at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Lerner had taught many years.
In the mid-1960s, armed with a doctorate in history from Columbia University and a dissertation on two abolitionist sisters from South Carolina, Lerner entered an academic world in which women’s history scarcely existed. The number of historians interested in the subject, she told The New York Times in 1973, “could have fit into a telephone booth.”
“In my courses, the teachers told me about a world in which ostensibly one-half the human race is doing everything significant and the other half doesn’t exist,” Lerner told The Chicago Tribune in 1993. “I asked myself how this checked against my own life experience. ‘This is garbage; this is not the world in which I have lived,’ I said.”
That picture changed rapidly, in large part because of her efforts while teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in the early 1970s. In creating a graduate program there, Lerner set about trying to establish women’s history as a respected academic discipline and to raising the status of women in the historical profession. She also began gathering and publishing the primary source material to reconstruct the lives of women.
Gerda Hedwig Kronstein was born on April 30, 1920, in Vienna, where her father owned a large pharmacy. Her mother tried unsuccessfully to reconcile her budding career as an artist with her duties as a housewife and mother. This struggle made a marked impression on her daughter.
After earning her bachelor’s degree from the New School for Social Research in 1963, she enrolled at Columbia, her work on the Grimke sisters in hand, to study women’s history. Bending the rules, the university allowed her to complete her master’s and doctorate in three years. In 1967, she published “The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery.”