Gerda Lerner

* 30.04.1920 (Wien) 02.01.2013 (Madison) Austria
Fields of activity: Pioneer in historical gender research
Author: Elfriede Marek

Unless Vienna Gerda Lerner Foto

Gerda Lerner, born April 30, 1920 in Vienna, deceased January 2, 2013 in Madison US Federal State Wisconsin was antifascist, pioneer in historical gender research, feminist historian. With her publications and scientific activities she expanded the presence of women´s history as an academic discipline.

Gerda was growing up with her younger sister Nora in a wealthy jewish family in Vienna during a period of awaking National Socialism and Austrofacism .  Her father established a profitable big farmacy, her mother Ilona did not succeed adopting the traditional part of a married woman which opposed her ambitions for art and her tendency for a Bohemien life style .The family conflicts resulting from this reason had  an earl affect on Gerda.

Soaked up with Marxian principles Gerda started already in younger years antifascistic activities. In April 1938 she and her mother were arrested by the Gestapo seeking to use them her absent father/husband to return. The experiences as an imprisoned teenager were the most formative influences of her life. 1939 she succeeded to emigrate to the USA, where she worked first as radiographer in a New York hospital, later as salesgirl, nursemaid and waitress. This new start at the bottom determined her for a feministic historian.

After the divorce of a marriage contracted mainly as means of getting her into USA  Gerda married  1941 the theatre director, filmproducer and communist Carl Lerner, with whom she had 2 children. On the one side she worked with her husband in Hollywood on filmscripts , on the other side she published antifascistic texts and entered to do historical researches. Her social engagement focused on establishments for children´s care and the mission for better wages for female factory labourers.

In the Mc Carthy period the family had to leave Hollywood and to return to New York. Nevertheless Gerda remained engaged in politics and social welfare.

Since 1959 she enroled in the New School for Social Research for history. Her interest in women´s biographies and their historical connection made Gerda recognize a patriachical history science.  „ In the courses of insruction teachers are relating of a world where  half oft he humans are said to do the important whereas the other half does not exist. I delivered how this agreed with my own experience of life. That is simply garbage. This is not the world in which I live.“

1966 she graduated at the Columbia University as Ph Doctor of history. She wrote a PhD dissertation about the white sisters Grimke who had been antislavery activists in South Carolina.

The following activity as teacher on the Sarah Lawrence College in New York was dominated by US historical themes of women´s history. For her it was of importance to examine  the subjects of teaching and forward her deliberations to her students.

In the sixties Lerner was cofounder of the greatest American women´s organization, the National Organization for Women (NOW). In  1972 she built the countries first PhD Program in Women´s History at the university of Madison (Wisconsin) where she was teaching as professor till 1991. From 1980 – 1981 she was as first woman president of American historians.

Since 1992 every year the Lerner-Scott Prize is given out for the best dissertaton in women´s history.

Lerners publishing production belongs to scientific works, shortstories, autographics, scripts and novels. In her works relating to women´s history as „The Creation of Patriarchy“, „The Creation of Feminist Consciousness „„Why History Matters“ and „Black Women in white America“ Lerner focused the search to investigate the roots of the women´s oppression,  examines the historical construction of the patriarchalism and awakens  the feministic consciouness.

Lerner thought the connection between patriarchalism with militarism, hierarchical structures and racism threatening.

She defined the social gender as main regulation.

Beside her appreciation in the USA Lerner was at last also honoured in Austria by granting the Bruno-Kreisky Prize in 2006 for her complete literary and publicity work. Also 2012 Lerner was given the women´s –life work prize by the Austrian women´s Ministry.


Lerner, Gerda. Feuerkraut, /2009/Wien/Czernin Verlag
Lerner, Gerda. Die Entstehung des feministischen Bewußtseins, /1995/Frankfurt/New York/Campus Verlag
NYTimes. Gerda Lerner, a Feminist and Historian, Dies at 92, /

The Gerda Lerner Literary Trust. Gerda Lerner Historian. /

Photocredits: Gerda Lerner, 1981. By UW-Madison (UW-Madison Archives) [CC-BY-3.0],