Gerda Lerner, a pioneer educator in the field of women’s history and founding member of the National Organization for Woman, died Wednesday in Wisconsin. She was 92.
Lerner’s son, Dan, told the Associated Press that his mom died peacefully of apparent old age at an assisted-living facility in Madison, where she helped establish a doctoral program in women’s history at the University of Wisconsin.
“She was always a very strong-willed and opinionated woman,” Dan Lerner said. “I think those are the hallmarks of great people, people that have strong points of view and firmly held convictions.”
Born in Austria in 1920, Gerda Lerner faced persecution at an early age and spent her 18th birthday in a Nazi jail in Vienna expecting death and being fed food scraps by two gentile cellmates after authorities cut rations to Jews.
Gerda was eventually able to escape the country and persecution by the Nazis with the help of a young socialist lover, Bobby Jensen. The pair immigrated to the United States in 1939.
Upon arriving in the US, Lerner moved to New York where she worked as a waitress, salesperson, office clerk, and x-ray technician, all the while writing fiction and poetry.
After obtaining her doctorate at New York’s Columbia University in 1966, Lerner went on to found the women’s studies program at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, which in 1972 became the first to offer a graduate degree in women’s history.
She later moved to Madison, where she established her doctoral program on women’s studies at the U-W.
During her life Lerner published 11 books, including her 1986 work “The Creation of Patriarchy” and her 1994 volume “The Creation of Feminist Consciousness.”
She was also an editor of a book titled “Black Women in White America.” It was one of the first books which chronicled the struggles and accomplishments of black women in America.
“She’s one of two people from what you might call the eldest generation of this wave of women’s history,” said Linda Gordon, a New York University professor who taught women’s history at UW-Madison with Lerner in the 1980s and 1990s. “She had an enormous influence.”
Gerda retired from the university in 1991.
Her survivors include her sister Nora Kronstein, daughter Stephanie Lerner Lapidus, son Dan and four grandchildren.