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The author is successful business, real estate, and media entrepreneur Dick Kazan.
Published on May 14th, 2013

Gerda Lerner: A feminist leader, professor and author who revolutionized the field of women’s history

1938: Nazi Germany annexed Austria.

Gerda, who was Jewish and an anti-Nazi activist, spent her 18th birthday behind bars, thrown in jail by the Nazis, as was her mother, jailed for the same reason.

Gerda’s jailors were starving her to death when two gentile women imprisoned with her for their anti-Nazi activities, refused to let her die as they secretly shared their food rations with her.

Meanwhile, Gerda’s father, a successful businessman and pharmacist, escaped to Lichtenstein and paid nearly everything he owned to free his wife and daughter, after they spent six weeks in jail, their lives hanging in the balance.

He immediately moved them to Lichtenstein with him.

But Gerda Hedwig Kronstein had always been a rebel acting on principle. For example, when she turned 13 she took one of her first feminist actions refusing her Bat Mitzvah because women were excluded from many of the synagogue’s religious activities.

In 1939 through a marriage of convenience, Gerda arrived in New York, and took any work she could find. Among her jobs was as a sales clerk at a Fifth Avenue candy store, which fired her for reporting them to the U.S. Labor Department for paying workers less than minimum wage.

Gerda’s first marriage ended in divorce and in 1941, she married Carl Lerner, a theater director and Communist activist. The couple soon moved to Hollywood, where Carl became a film editor.

Gerda too joined the Communist Party and began working with community groups to organize boycotts of supermarkets and local child care centers that abused their workers.

Later, Gerda ended her Communist Party membership but in the late 1940’s following World War ll, the McCarthy witch-hunts against any Communist sympathizers seized America and Carl could no longer find work in Hollywood. In 1949 he and Gerda returned to New York.

As the years passed, Gerda and Carl had a son and daughter and when the McCarthy era ended, Carl became a top film editor working on such memorable films as “Twelve Angry Men,” (1957) starring Henry Fonda, “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” (1962) starring Anthony Quinn and “Klute,” (1971) starring Jane Fonda.

In 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Gerda and Carl collaborated on, “Black Like Me,” a film Carl directed and they both adapted from the 1961 book by Southern white journalist John Howard Griffin.

For six weeks in 1959, Griffin darkened his skin and later wrote the stark story of what it was like to be black in America’s Deep South.

In 1963, at age 43, Gerda earned her Bachelor’s Degree in history from the New School for Social Research. And three years later, she received her Master’s Degree and Doctorate in history from prestigious Columbia University.

But in the process Gerda discovered women had no history. “In my courses, the teachers told me about a world in which ostensibly one-half the human race is doing everything significant and the other half doesn’t exist,” she told The Chicago Tribune in a 1993 interview.

“I asked myself how this checked against my own life experience. This is garbage; this is not the world in which I have lived, I said,” in that Tribune interview. Twenty years earlier, in 1973 she had told The New York Times that the number of historians interested in women’s history “could have fit into a telephone booth.”

Gerda Lerner
Gerda Lerner

Gerda took action like no-one before her to correct this injustice in the U.S. and elsewhere. In 1967, she published “The Grimke Sisters: Rebels Against Slavery,” about two sisters originally from a wealthy slave owning plantation in the Deep South, who moved North and became two of the leading abolitionists of their time.

That book has had such impact, that 46 years later, it is still used in classrooms today. It was the first of about a dozen books Gerda would write or edit.

In 1966, Gerda co-founded the National Organization for Women, which strives for equal rights for women, and in 1972, while teaching at New York’s Sarah Lawrence College, she created the first graduate program in women’s history anyplace in the world.

And to encourage other historians and writers to focus on women’s history, Gerda also began collecting and publishing original source material such as diaries, speeches, letters, newspaper interviews, etc. This would make it far easier for historians and other writers to tell the stories of what women have accomplished.

In 1980, Gerda became a history professor at Wisconsin-Madison, and created the university’s first doctoral program in women’s history. In 1991, after retiring at the age of 71, Gerda continued to write and to agitate for equal opportunities for women.

But on Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013 Gerda passed away at the age of 92. Among her survivors are her son Dan, her daughter Stephanie and four grandchildren.

However, her survivors also include women all over the world who, thanks in part to Gerda, have a voice, have a history, have an identity and have wider opportunities to get ahead in life.

Success Tip of the Week: As Gerda did, when you see a terrible wrong, do your best to correct it, as through your courage, you can make the world a better place.

Editor’s Note: To hear Gerda in her own words, please see a compelling 7 minute video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_PJwMpAgtQ.

To learn more about Gerda, please see her New York Times and Los Angeles Times obits: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/04/us/gerda-lerner-historian-dies-at-92.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 and http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jan/12/local/la-me-gerda-lerner-20130113

In the next KazanToday: A slave who risked her life to save many other slaves.

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