The Creation of Feminist Consciousness Analysis

Gerda Lerner

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

With The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy, Gerda Lerner has completed her two-volume magnum opus, Women and History, which she began with The Creation of Patriarchy (1986). Ranging over the whole of Western history from prehistory to the late nineteenth century, Lerner has theorized how and why the system of patriarchy originated (in the first volume) and the long process by which women began to “think their way out” of that systematic subordination (in the second volume). Unlike many historians, Lerner is undaunted by the task of working in so many areas—sources in medieval Latin, Middle English, and Old High German; meditations of medieval mystics and Reformation visionaries; Jewish Romantic poetry; and medieval drama. This view enables Lerner to speculate and generalize about women in history over varied epochs and cultures.

Lerner’s book is courageous not only because she covers such a long period of time but also because she considers so many whose work has already been the subject of much historical and literary analysis—from medieval writers Christine de Pizan and Hildegard of Bingen to poet Emily Dickinson. Additionally, she challenges traditional assumptions about women’s intellectual prowess. Lerner is not cowed by the task, simply noting that women have not been system-builders in the past because they lacked access to education and their own history. Her own...

(The entire section is 413 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Gerda Lerner could be called the mother of modern women’s history. Her books—beginning with her biography, The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina (1967) and especially with The Majority Finds Its Past (1979)—have nourished a whole generation of women’s history scholars, helping them to ask new questions and use new sources in order to restore women to history, to find the great women of history, and more important, to put women at the center of their analysis. Lerner insists that historians see with both eyes (traditional and nontraditional views of history) in order to correct for historical blind spots, gaining peripheral vision and depth perception. Recalling the seventeenth century astronomer Galileo’s whispered “And still, it moves” after his forced retraction of the heliocentric view of the universe, Lerner concludes: “Once the basic fallacy of patriarchal thought—the assumption that a half of humankind can adequately represent the whole—has been exposed and explained, it can no more be undone than was the insight that the earth is round, not flat.”

Far-reaching and well-written, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness is an excellent general text for the nonspecialist in women’s history. The bibliography, arranged topically, chronologically, and by individual, is especially useful. Lerner has managed to negotiate the inevitable trade-off a scholar must make between the narration of a galvanizing story and the necessary scholarly evidence. In telling these stories and in arguing that women must have both knowledge of their own history and a viable collective movement in order to come to feminist consciousness, Lerner creates a believable alternative to patriarchal history.