Gerda Lerner, one of the founders of the study of women’s history, whose writings explored the long-neglected historical contributions of women and influenced generations of future scholars, died Jan. 2 at an assisted living facility in Madison, Wis. She was 92.
Her son, Daniel Lerner, confirmed her death to the Associated Press but did not cite a cause.
By the time Dr. Lerner began her academic career in her 40s, she had already been arrested by the Gestapo in her native Austria, published a novel, raised a family, been a member of the Communist Party and co-written the screenplay of a movie.
But all along, she was discovering the untold stories of women, whose experiences had been systematically ignored by the men who had been history’s chroniclers. Even as a graduate student at Columbia University in the 1960s, Dr. Lerner was discouraged from focusing on the study of women, but she persisted in her lonely path.
“I never had a female teacher,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. “In my courses, the teachers told me about a world in which ostensibly one-half of the human race was 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.”
In 1972, while teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., Dr. Lerner founded what is believed to be the country’s first graduate program dedicated to women’s history.
She published several books that examined the lives of women, including a 1971 textbook, “The Woman in American History,” and other important studies, including “The Creation of Patriarchy” (1986) and “The Creation of Feminist Consciousness” (1997).
By the end of the 1970s, women’s studies had become an established field, and Dr. Lerner’s academic standing was secure.
Historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, writing in the New Republic in 1979, highlighted Dr. Lerner’s “unique role in making women’s history the thriving field it has become; she has delineated its appropriate contours; searched for a method and a theory appropriate to its practice; unearthed the sources necessary to its writing; insisted not merely on its autonomy and integrity, but on its inescapable centrality to any worthy history of humankind.”
Dr. Lerner moved in 1980 to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she set up a PhD program in women’s history. She continued to publish books well into her 80s, including books of essays and a 2002 memoir that described the struggles of her dramatic early life in Austria.
“I wanted to show people that whatever contributions I could make as a historian and a theoretician of women’s history and women’s studies,” she told the New York Times in 2002, “came out of my practical life experiences.”
Gerda Hedwig Kronstein was born April 30, 1920, into a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna. Her father owned a pharmacy, and her mother was a would-be artist and free spirit.
After the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, Dr. Lerner’s father fled to Liechtenstein to avoid anti-Semitic attacks. His wife and daughter were arrested by the Gestapo.
Dr. Lerner turned 18 during the six weeks she spent in a Nazi jail. Because she was Jewish, her rations were half those of other prisoners. Some of her gentile cellmates shared their food with her, giving her a lasting sense of solidarity with other women.
“If you wanted to survive,” she wrote in “Fireweed,” her 2002 memoir, “you could not do it alone and you had to fight with all your strength to keep some sort of social contract. That is what I learned in jail . . . and it has marked all my life irrevocably.”
She came to the United States in 1939 as the fiancee of a Viennese medical student, Bernard Jerusalem, who changed his name to Bobby Jensen during the immigration process. They divorced shortly afterward. In 1941, she married Carl Lerner, a film editor who was a member of the Communist Party.
After moving to Hollywood, Dr. Lerner also became a Communist, but she kept her membership a secret until publishing her memoirs.
In 1949, she and her husband settled in New York, where Dr. Lerner collaborated on a 1951 musical, “Singing of Women,” and published a novel, “No Farewell” (1955), about the rise of fascism in Austria.
She also co-wrote the screenplay of “Black Like Me,” a true story about a white man disguising himself as an African American in the South in the 1950s. Her husband directed the 1964 film, starring James Whitmore.
Dr. Lerner was 38 when she enrolled at New York’s New School, from which she graduated in 1963. She received master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Columbia in 1965 and 1966, respectively.
Over her professors’ objections, she wrote her dissertation about two sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who grew up on a Southern plantation only to become ardent abolitionists in the 19th century. It was published as a book in 1967.
Dr. Lerner’s husband died in 1973. Survivors include two children; a sister; and four grandchildren.
In the mid-1960s, Dr. Lerner was one of the founders of the National Organization for Women, but she also considered herself a “typical American housewife” who stayed home to raise her children. Late in her career, she said the lives of housewives had been unjustly neglected by feminists scholars.
“We all have multiple identities, and they nourish each other,” she said in 2002. “People have tried to define me, and I’ve resisted. Don’t fence me in.”