Long before Gerda Lerner helped redefine the study of history to give women a more prominent place in it and before she established the doctorate program in U.S. women's history at UW-Madison in the 1980s, she had to live through one of history's worst horrors and — barely — survive it.
Lerner (then Kronstein), who died Wednesday night in Madison at age 92, spent her 18th birthday in a Nazi jail in Vienna expecting death and being fed food scraps by two gentile cellmates after authorities cut rations to Jews.
"They taught me how to survive," Lerner told the State Journal in 2001. "Everything I needed to get through the rest of my life I learned in jail in those six weeks."
Lerner, UW-Madison professor emerita of women's studies, was able to escape alone to New York in the late 1930s. Decades later she started an academic career as a historian of women who led a movement almost from its infancy, eventually writing 11 books, earning 18 honorary degrees and in 2002 becoming the first woman recipient of the prestigious Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Historical Writing from the Society of American Historians.
"She's one of two people from what you might call the eldest generation of this wave of women's history," said Linda Gordon, a New York University professor who taught women's history at UW-Madison with Lerner in the 1980s and 1990s. "She had an enormous influence."
While earning an undergraduate degree in the early 1960s at the New School and her doctorate at Columbia University in 1966 at age 46, Lerner grew frustrated by the portrayal of history as told by textbooks and professors.
"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 1993.
It became her life's work to balance out the story. She founded the women's studies program at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., which included the first graduate program in women's history in the country. In 1980, after the death of her husband, Carl, a theater director, she moved to UW-Madison to establish a Ph.D. program in women's history.
Although women could get a Ph.D. in women's history at that time, their programs of study were not orderly and structured. Lerner wanted to create a degree that was rich in depth — the sort of program a Ph.D. candidate in American studies or another area would follow — but that included extra work in women's history.
Structure, sequence and staffing were her goals, and she chose UW-Madison because it already had a high-ranking, high-status history department from which Lerner created a model that would eventually be imitated elsewhere.
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Throughout her career — Lerner retired from UW-Madison in 1991 — she maintained a vigorous schedule as a historian and writer, earning respect early as the editor of "Black Women in White America" in 1972, one of the first books to document the important struggles and contributions of African-American women in American history.
"What was unique is that she understood women are not all alike, that race and class make a very, very big difference in their lives and you can't generalize about all women," Gordon said.
Later contributions included her two-volume magnum opus, "The Creation of Patriarchy" in 1986 and "The Creation of Feminist Consciousness" in 1993.
"Fireweed," a memoir covering Lerner's years before she started on her academic path, came out in 2002 and was later adapted into a play by Heather McDonald.
Lerner established and funded a fellowship at UW-Madison that goes annually to a first- or second-year graduate student in women's history with a preference given to non-traditional students such as older women. When she earned her doctorate at Columbia at age 46, she was told her age and preference for studying women's history would doom her career.
"The fact that I could not take that advice was a very important thing," she told the State Journal in 2002. "The history of women had been forgotten, oppressed, silenced and marginalized until the last 30 years. I'm one of the people that helped bring that history alive, to point out it was valid and important. I couldn't have done that without my long history of resisting conformity."
In August 2011, UW-Madison named the third floor of the newly renamed Vel Phillips Hall (formerly Friedrick Hall) after Lerner.
Survivors include sister Nora Kronstein, daughter Stephanie Lerner Lapidus, son Dan and four grandchildren. Services will be private.
— State Journal reporter George Hesselberg contributed to this report.