THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Gerda Lerner
“I want women’s history to be legitimate, to be part of every curriculum on every level.”
Muriel Fox, VFA Chair of the Board introduces Gerda Lerner at the Seventh Regiment Armory, New York City, 1998
Muriel Fox: Now, it’s my honor to introduce Gerda Lerner. And yes, I am going to give her our first Medal of Honor. The New York Times called Gerda, “Among the most forceful and articulate scholars on the history of women.” Gerda grew up in Austria, in the 1930s and when she was 18, she and her mother were imprisoned by the Nazis, but she was released and escaped to the United States, and she became a housewife and a writer.
At the age of 38, and this is another kind of feminist inspirational story, she took courses at the New School, and she researched a fictionalized biography of two 19th century feminists, and later decided to become a historian. And, of course, she is one of the most prominent historians in our country. She went on to Columbia University, got her PhD, and established the first graduate Women’s Studies programs at Sarah Lawrence College.
I first remember Gerda when we founded the first NOW chapter in the country, which was New York NOW – we’re all proud of that – in March 1967. I passed out a yellow line pad for people to write down their biographies, and Gerda Learner was in the room. She wrote down that she was teaching at Sarah Laurence, she was interested in women’s history.
Gerda used to come to those early NOW meetings. I remember one day she said to me, “Would you please mention to the people in this chapter that I am writing this history on the Grimke Sisters and it’s going to come out soon?” And that was our first feminist history that really came out of NOW. Not the last, but the first, and we were all very proud of her.
Gerda went on to the University of Wisconsin. She founded a PhD program on women’s history there, and she is a professor emerita, a very distinguished professor, at the University of Wisconsin. In fact, as I say, in the entire world. Her program was recently called, “The Best in the Nation,” by Newsweek magazine. She was the first woman president in 50 years of the women historians. She has written twelve books on women’s history, and her works have been an inspiration for all of us. We are very proud, first of all, to present this medal to Gerda Lerner, and then to ask her to set the stage for what we are doing tonight.
Gerda Lerner: Well, thank you very much, Muriel, thank you Jacqui, and thanks to all of you, for being here. This is a wonderful group of people. People who were ahead of their time, who risked, who began something new, not only in America, but in the world. And it’s a wonderful impulse that we have to honor the veterans of that movement. I’m very privileged to be among you.
In the various many meetings that I attend, and the many lectures I’m asked to give, I usually am asked when I speak about women’s history, “Well, it’s all very well for you all to start teaching about the history of women, but when are you going to mainstream the history of women?” And I usually answer, “Excuse me, what do you mean by mainstream?” They say, “Well, you know, incorporate it into real history.” And I say, “Real history, into what you call real history, is the real history of 48% of the world’s population. I represent 52% of the world’s population. And if you want to know when we’re going to mainstream, I have a simple answer for you.
“Men have been writing the history of the world from their point of view, and according to their sets of values, for over 2000 years. In fact, 4000 years, if you want to be strict about it. Because when writing was invented, it was 4000 years ago and ever since then we have history.” I say, “Well, women have begun to reclaim their history about 150 years ago, and the modern women’s history movement is about 35 years old.” I say, “You give us 4000 years, and we’ll mainstream.”
I think we need to get a perspective that is larger than our time, larger than our memory, larger than our lifetime. For over 4000 years, patriarchal organization of the world has laid claim to legitimacy, on very feeble ground. The argument is really [it] cannot be sustained, and has been challenged incessantly by women for at least 2500 years.
I have documented the intellectual challenge that women have made to patriarchy in my book, The Creation of Feminists Consciousness. And I can document at least 1800 years in which every century, some woman challenged the ideas that men are entitled to more than women, by some reason that nobody has ever been able to figure out. That men are intellectually superior to women, that women are biologically destined to inferiority, and a whole lot of other ideas equally absurd, on the level that the earth is flat. Well, I’ve got news for you, the earth is not flat. And we have found our voices.
Now, we in this room, and all the people that we have touched through our activities, and through our work, have been part of a historic moment that is unique in the history of the human race. Patriarchy has existed for 4000 years. Before that, for at least 25,000 years, human societies existed that were more egalitarian than we can imagine.
But patriarchy has not only invented itself and usurped a central place, but it has usurped intellectually, a kind of legitimacy, that described anything that is not like it, as deviant. And men and women have gone into that for 4000 years. Not all women. There were always some women who resisted. And our great tragedy is, that because we were deprived of a history of women, generation after generation of women who wanted to resist patriarchy, had to do it on their own.
I have documented 700 years of feminist bible criticism prior to 1870, and every woman who engaged in that feminist bible criticism thought she was the first woman ever to do this. And when Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1893, published the Woman’s Bible, she put in the forward, “No woman before me has ever done this.”
This is tragic, because it symbolizes the true position that women held in the world, which was to think, each woman thought, and each man taught each woman to think, and each mother taught their sons and daughters to think, that women have not contributed significantly to the creation of thought, to the creation of culture, and to the creation of civilization. This is a lie, all right?
In this century, in the last 35 years, we have finally nailed that lie. And by so doing, we have reclaimed full human status for every woman born and living. We have reclaimed the fact that women are not only creators of civilization, maintainers of society, agents in history, but they are thinkers, and creators of idea systems. Only we have been denied the knowledge of that.
And that has been a tragedy. It has been a tragedy for every woman born, because each generation of women has had to reinvent the wheel, over and over again. Whereas men could stand on the knowledge of the men before them, and improve upon it. And every woman had to stand on the knowledge of the men before them, and oppose it, and think she was the first one to do so.
We are living at a very wonderful moment. A moment that I believe is more important than a renaissance, a moment that is more important than the reformation. It is the moment when half of the human race is reclaiming its ID as full human beings. We have regained our history. And by regaining our history and by transmitting it to the next generation, we will create a basis where women will no longer have to reinvent the wheel. We will be able to stand on the shoulders of the women before us, and I think this is a very wonderful and exciting endeavor.
Now, I know that in this room, most of you are activists. I believe so, I think [you are] activists in the women’s movement, and it is a wonderful thing you have done. Those of us who have put our activism into academic work, have done so because we are convinced that freeing the minds of women is as important as freeing them as citizens.
And I believe myself, that appointing women with their history, is the single most important thing we can do to raise feminist consciousness. And feminist consciousness means for women to understand that they have a grievance in this world. That the grievance is not individual, that to change their grievance, they need to ally with other women. They need to define for themselves what their goals are. They need then, to form alliances with men and women to attain their goals, and that when their goal is attained, we will have a better society for all of us. Men and women.