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.