When I started working on women's history about 30 years ago, the field did
not exist. People didn't think that women had a history worth knowing.
-- Gerda Lerner
Lerner, a historian, author, educator, wife, and mother, is one of the six
women honored this year by the National Women's History Project as an exemplar
of "the American Spirit." She was born in 1920 into a wealthy Jewish family in
Vienna, Austria. With that little bit of information, you could perhaps finish
some of her story yourself, but if it's true that God is in the details, a few
more are needed.
As a young teenager, Gerda witnessed the rise of Nazi power in Europe. As part
of the underground resistance, she was imprisoned, forced into exile with her
family, and, at 18, she came to the United States. She eventually became a
naturalized citizen, married her life partner, Carl Lerner, and had two
children. Before returning to her education in 1958, Gerda was active in
numerous grassroots community movements, advocating for civil rights, peace and
social justice, and better public education.
Gerda worked against McCarthyism during that dark period of our history. In
1966, she received her Ph.D. from Columbia University and started her career as
a history professor and author. She is considered the foremost pioneer in the
scholarly field of women's history and in 1981 became the first woman in 50
years to be elected president of the Organization of American Historians. After
four decades of teaching and writing, she has just completed her story, an
autobiography titled Fireweed, due out in April.
Although Dr. Lerner is famous for her work in the field of history, it is her
own history that is intriguing to me. I look forward to reading her account of
the years before her life of valued (read: paid) work began. The Women's
History Month theme this year is "Women Sustaining the American Spirit." The
brochure about it and the six honorees states, "Our history has been enriched
with women whose lives and work have transformed our nation and the ideas of
their day. Women's history is also about countless women who have lived out
their lives quietly at the center of their families."
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.
That was Lerner quoted in 1981. Can we all agree that things have changed, for
better and for worse, in the domestic realm since then? Whether women have
entered the world of paid work by choice, force, or need, we are there.
Being there has put us on the frontlines of our current war on terrorism. I
spent a few hours searching the Internet
for a gender breakdown of the
victims of September 11 before calling a reference librarian for assistance.
Even she couldn't find that detail, but she did find a site
(www.september11victims.com) that lists the names of all the known dead.
Although I haven't yet made my way through all 3021 names, I do know that of
the 41 passengers and crew listed for Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania,
20 were female. Of the 59 listed for Flight 77, which crashed into the
Pentagon, 26 were female. Of the 87 on Flight 11, which crashed into the north
tower of the World Trade Center, 42 were female. Of the 60 on Flight 175, which
crashed into the south tower, 18 were female. Are we getting close to being
equal yet in the places that count?
Compare those ratios to these of female representation in our government. Of
100 senators of the United States, 13 are female. Of 435 members of the House
of Representatives, 62 are female. I don't know about other women, but I am
seriously considering fomenting a "No taxation without equal representation"
The one voice in opposition to the War Powers Resolution granting the Bush
administration unprecedented powers to wage war and stifle dissent -- the only
voice that spoke for me -- was female. Talk about peer pressure and the courage
to stand up to it -- Representative Barbara Lee should become the national
poster child for courage and the American spirit. Instead, she has received
numerous death threats.
The strength of our democracy lies in our Constitution, its Bill of Rights,
and the long tradition of governmental checks and balances. Let us keep
democracy alive by vigorous debate and discourse, by the careful weighing of
various alternatives, rather than by a blind and automatic rallying around the
president. The decisions made by politicians in the next few weeks and months
may affect the lives and resources of the American people for years to come.
Let us all be part of the decision-making, and let those who claim leadership
show it by coming up with alternatives to war.
-- Gerda Lerner, October 2001
Each year 489 million people, 127 million cars, 211 thousand boats, and five
million shipping containers enter the United States. The armed guards now at
airports don't give me much comfort about easing the threat of terrorism. More
likely, they'll be as effective as drug-sniffing dogs in stemming the tide of
drug abuse in this country.
Where is the national discussion about the root causes of terrorism and how we
are addressing them? Where is our principle of unity in diversity -- E
Pluribus Unum? Where is our principle of freedom of speech, of the balance
of individual liberty, and the protection of the common good? My personal sense
of safety is diminishing with every bomb that is dropped and every right that
And what about "the last humanizing force of society?" We have already
witnessed what happens when women are not fully present in the traditional
domestic realm of unpaid family and community work. When we migrated to the
more valued realm of paid employment without an adequate societal shift to take
up the slack, families and communities suffered. What can we expect when the
needs of the domestic realm of the nation and the world -- adequate child care,
health-care, elder care, and education, feeding the hungry, housing the
homeless -- are undervalued even more to maintain military and economic
The National Priorities Project calculates that the national budget for 2002
proposes spending 49.2 percent of your tax dollars for defense and
three-point-six percent for international affairs. Is this a distribution of
funds that fairly reflects your priorities? Didn't communism collapse under the
weight of an excessive arms buildup? Do we have to wait until the entire
country is in shambles before we are invited in to clean up the mess?
Women rule. This is not an opinion -- it's a mandate. At this point in women's
history we need to be as concerned with whether we will have a future worth
living as we are in celebrating a history worth knowing. We can only do this by
becoming active citizens in this diminishing democracy, as hard as it might be
to add one more ball to the juggling act. We can only do it by reviving and
sustaining the true American spirit.
We can start by communicating with our current elected officials and making
sure they know our priorities. We can also work for, support, and elect women
(and/or men) who understand and respect women's priorities and women's worth.
We can also start at the very grassroots level in our homes and our
Celebrate Women's History Month this month by taking a stand, speaking your
truth to power, reclaiming and sustaining the American spirit of government of
the people, by the people, and for the people. And pay attention to the
Autonomy means women defining themselves and the values by which they live,
and beginning to think of institutional arrangements which will order their
environment in line with their needs . . . Autonomy means moving out from a
world in which one is born to marginality, a past without meaning and a future
determined by others into a world in which one acts and chooses, aware of a
meaningful past and free to shape one's future."
-- Gerda Lerner
Issue Date: March 22 - 28, 2002