Why History Matters

Gerda Lerner became a major figure in women’s studies and a dedicated activist for women’s issues after confronting the difficulties of her Jewish identity before, during, and after World War II. Persecution and prejudice sensitized her to the difficult choices confronting the victims of social and political injustice.

She writes of the problems of assimilation and acculturation and how her own experiences as a woman and refugee in America eventually brought her to the highground of historical perspective. Her insights into the connections between class, race and what she was one of the first to champion as a legitimate field of study—women’s history—were highly original and earned her the respect of American historians.

In an important essay on the history of non-violent resistance, Professor Lerner carefully demonstrates how this form of protest had originated with American women in the abolition movement before the Civil War. When this kind of resistance reappeared over a hundred years later in the civil rights movement, Mahatma Gandhi received greater credit than the American female abolitionists who had braved the mobs earlier in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the most important essay is “Re-visioning History” in which class, race, and gender are theorized as not just “inter-related” but also “mutually constitutive.” Class privileges manipulate “elite” white women by separating them from ethnic women; this undercuts their ability to form interest groups. Gender is constructed racially, but race is also constructed genderically and by way of class. By noting the “discriminatory systems” that are constructed by these manipulations, Gerda Lerner has exposed historical patterns heretofore unrecognized.