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Gerda Lerner Quotes

Gerda Lerner (April 30, 1920 - January 2, 2013)


Gerda Lerner was born in Austria, fleeing in 1939 with her family to escape from the Nazis. As a young mother, she learned English and then became a writer, including the screenplay for Black Like Me. Gerda Lerner returned to school in 1959, graduating from Columbia University with a Ph.D. in history in 1966. Her dissertation on the Grimke sisters is an early women's history classic.

As a teacher, mentor, and director of the first graduate degree program in women's history, Gerda Lerner's work has been integral in the field. The idea for Women's History Week -- which evolved into Women's History Month -- began at an institute that was offered through Lerner's work at Sarah Lawrence College.

Selected Gerda Lerner Quotations

• When I started working on women's history about thirty years ago, the field did not exist. People didn't think that women had a history worth knowing.

• [W]omen's history is the primary tool for women's emancipation.

• There is an ironic significance in the fact that the very term used to describe the new field Women's History is a misnomer.

• Everything that explains the world has in fact explained a world that does not exist, a world in which men are at the center of the human enterprise and women are at the margin "helping" them. Such a world does not exist -- never has.

• Women have always made history as much as men have, not 'contributed' to it, only they did not know what they had made and had no tools to interpret their own experience. What's new at this time is that women are fully claiming their past and shaping the tools by means of which they can interpret it.

• We can learn from history how past generations thought and acted, how they responded to the demands of their time and how they solved their problems. We can learn by analogy, not by example, for our circumstances will always be different than theirs were. The main thing history can teach us is that human actions have consequences and that certain choices, once made, cannot be undone. They foreclose the possibility of making other choices and thus they determine future events.

• What we do about history matters. The often repeated saying that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them has a lot of truth in it. But what are 'the lessons of history'? The very attempt at definition furnishes ground for new conflicts. History is not a recipe book; past events are never replicated in the present in quite the same way. Historical events are infinitely variable and their interpretations are a constantly shifting process. There are no certainties to be found in the past.

• What are patriarchal values? Simply, the assumption that the fact of biological sex differences implies a God-given or at least a "natural" separation of human activities by sex, and the further assumption that this leads to a "natural" dominance of male over female.

• Abandoning the search for an empowering past – the search for matriarchy – is one step in the right direction. The creation of compensatory myths of the distant past of women will not emancipate women in the present and the future.

• Nursing was regarded as simply an extension of the unpaid services performed by the housewife -- a characteristic attitude that haunts the profession to this day.

• Black people cannot and will not become integrated into American society on any terms but those of self-determination and autonomy.

• The appeal of the New Right is simply that it seems to promise that nothing will change in the domestic realm. People are terrified of change there, because it's the last humanizing force left in society, and they think, correctly, that it must be retained.

• Long-term commitment to an intimate relationship with one person of whatever sex is an essential need that people have in order to breed the qualities out of which nurturant thought can rise.

Elizabeth Fox Genovese about Gerda Lerner: An historian to be sure, the most active and politically astute of the opening phase of the new women's history, but also a specially talented writer, an inspiring and demanding teacher, a model as well as a companion to younger female scholars, a forceful presence in her chosen profession.

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About These Quotes

Quote collection assembled by Jone Johnson Lewis. Each quotation page in this collection and the entire collection © Jone Johnson Lewis 1997-2005. This is an informal collection assembled over many years. I regret that I am not be able to provide the original source if it is not listed with the quote.

Citation information:
Jone Johnson Lewis. "Gerda Lerner Quotes." About Women's History. URL: http://womenshistory.about.com/cs/quotes/gerda_lerner.htm . Date accessed: (today). (More on how to cite online sources including this page)

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