Women's lives were absent from the study of history until the 1970s. Gerda Lerner took herself and her students seriously, demanding that universities do the same.
Let us now praise serious women
The news that Professor Gerda Lerner passed on recently took me back to college days when I was her student. In describing her life, The New York Times drew from her book Fireweed: A Political Autobiography. Lerner wrote, “I was unduly intense, super-serious, incapable of small talk or the kind of friendly gossip that hold acquaintances together.”
During those days I was struggling to embrace the “serious” label that had hung around my neck since childhood. I grew up in a small Wisconsin town where a young woman of color, if she were lucky, married a man who worked at the General Motors plant. Young women were encouraged to be realistic rather then serious. The serious label carried a whole raft of unpleasant meanings like “high and mighty,” “too big for your britches,” and the ones that enraged me the most, “unladylike” and “ridiculous.” Oh, how I hated the derisive laughter of men folk when they belittled my hopes of being a writer. After all, I was an Indian girl with an 8th grade education. I was told to be practical and abandon all this serious nonsense.
But Professor Lerner (she let us call her Gerda) was a serious woman, and she expected her students, including undergrads, to be serious too. After earning my G.E.D and passing the entrance requirements, I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at age 22. My dream had come true! I was exhilarated and scared as hell when I landed in Gerda’s Women’s History class. After the first week, fewer than half of the students remained. I had wanted “serious” and Gerda didn’t disappoint.
According to The New York Times, and others, Lerner ”helped make the study of women and their lives a legitimate subject for historians.”
She helped create the very first graduate program in women’s history in the U.S., at Sarah Lawrence, and established the doctoral program in Women’s Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Gerda knew a thing or two about the struggle to be taken seriously. After escaping Nazi Germany with her parents, she landed in New York where she worked at menial jobs. She got fired from a candy store after reporting the employers to the Labor Department for paying workers substandard wages.
She told us about how she had managed to study while raising children and running a household. She would paste index cards detailing her source materials around the house so that she could study while scrubbing floors. She reminded us that since we were blazing a trail as serious women in the academic world, we would need to be diligent about our scholarship.
She was tough and demanding. She insisted that we sit in the same seats and forbade us from eating in class. “We are here to work,” she said tersely. Much to my chagrin, she pointed to a seat in the front row when she spied me trying to hide out in the back of the classroom. “Sit here, Ms. Pember, so I’ll come to know you.”
Although not motherly in the traditional sense, Gerda knew somehow that I needed to be drawn out and encouraged. She showed me how to study and organize my notes and readings; she insisted on diligence and was immune to excuses.
Bashful and self-conscious about my dreams of being a serious woman, I hung around the outside of the circle of graduate students who surrounded her. Oh, how I longed to be among those young women who conversed so brilliantly!
Although, I was never a part of that exceptional group, I was inspired and electrified by their energy and brash insistence that we women were, indeed, serious people worthy of recognition. Our contribution to history and the world was a legitimate subject of scholarship.
In the preface to her book Black Women in White America, Gerda wrote, “I believe it is necessary to recognize that there is a female aspect to all history, that women were there and that their special contributions to the building and shaping of society were different from those of men. This difference in quality has up to now meant invisibility and insignificance; it cannot mean this any longer.”
My two courses with Gerda informed my college experience and my life. Gerda didn’t care that I didn’t go to high school or that I was an Indian; she saw the hunger in my eyes and the fire in my belly, knowing that the status quo for women, especially women of color, was unfair. She saw a kindred spirit in me.
Gerda Lerner gave me permission to be serious. More importantly, she expected it of me and for that I am grateful.
Journalist and photographer Mary Annette Pember reports for Indian Country Today Media Network and lives in Cincinnati, OH.