Photo: Courtesy Gerda Lerner via Jewish Women’s Archive

Dr. Gerda Lerner (1920-2013) was the embodiment of what one can accomplish if they have the will, yet few have ever heard her name. Born in Vienna, Austria, she and her mother were arrested by the Gestapo in 1938. Many years later, she told the Chicago Tribune that it was “the most important” experience in her life because she didn’t think she “was going to come out alive.”

Not only did she escape that terrifying incident, but she went on to find her way to New York, earn a Bachelor’s Degree from the New School and a Master’s and Doctorate from Columbia University. She is credited with starting the country’s first graduate program in women’s history (1972, Sarah Lawrence College). Several years later, she moved on to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and created that school’s doctoral program in women’s history.

In a recent NY Times article, she was quoted as telling the Chicago Tribune (1993), “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. 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.”

According to Alice Kessler-Harris, a history professor at Columbia, Dr. Lerner “made it happen. She established women’s history as not just a valid but a central area of scholarship. If you look at any library today, you will see hundreds of books on the subject.”

Against all odds, Dr. Gerda Lerner accomplished more than most, making contributions that forever changed the face of women’s history. This American hero died in January at age 92, but her legacy will live on forever.

You can read more about her life and achievements in William Grimes’ January 3rd New York Times article.

Also, take two minutes to watch this poignant video of Dr. Lerner reading her poem, In Praise of Aging. This is a woman I would have loved to have been able to sit down to lunch with. What a fascinating life.