The 2005 Charles Homer Haskins Lecture
Gerda Lerner was born in Vienna, Austria in 1920. She emigrated to the United States in 1939. After working as a fiction writer and for many years as a participant in grassroots and community political movements, Lerner began her academic career in 1958. She received her B.A. from the New School for Social Research (now New School University) in 1963, and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1965 and 1966, respectively. Widely recognized and lauded as the pre-eminent scholar of women’s history and one of the foremost champions of the women’s history movement, Lerner has also received honorary degrees from many colleges and universities. She has held teaching positions at the New School for Social Research, Long Island University, Columbia University, and Sarah Lawrence College, where she served as Director of the Master’s Program in Women’s History from 1972 to 1980. That year she was named Robinson-Edwards Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she established a Ph.D. program in women’s history.
Since 1991, she has served as professor emerita at that institution. Lerner, through her career in academia, as a political activist, and as the author of more than ten books and countless articles on the subject, has made great advances in establishing, legitimizing, and raising consciousness of the field of women’s history. Her published works include Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (ed. 1972), The Female Experience: An American Documentary (1976), The Creation of Patriarchy (1986), The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993), and Why History Matters (1997). In addition to her historical works, she has also personalized the subject with her 2002 memoir, Fireweed: A Political Autobiography, which chronicles her life under fascism and her political activities in the United States in the 1950s.
Lerner has received numerous awards and honors throughout her career. From 1984 through 1991 she was the WARF Senior Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Wisconsin. She has held fellowships and grants from the Social Science Research Council (1970-1971), the Rockefeller Foundation (1972), the National Endowment for the Humanities (1976 and 1987), the Ford Foundation (1978-1979) and the Lily Foundation (1979). She was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1980-1981 and a Resident Fellow at the Aspen Institute in 1977 and at the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio, Italy in both 1974 and 1991. In 1980 she was elected president of the Organization of American Historians, the first woman to hold the position in fifty years. She was honored with the Award for Scholarly Distinction in 1992 by the American Historical Association. In 1994 Lerner was elected to the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, and in 1998 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 2002, Lerner became the first woman to receive the Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Historical Writing, given by the Society of American Historians. Two prestigious awards have been established in her name: the Gerda Lerner Scholarship Fund at Sarah Lawrence College and the Gerda Lerner-Anne Firor Scott Prize for best doctoral dissertation in U.S. Women’s History by the Organization of American Historians. Lerner’s work has also been honored by her home country of Austria, most recently in 1996 with the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art.