Gerda Lerner, Women’s History Pioneer
Although the study of women’s history is common in higher education today, for much of the 20th Century, the historical experience of women was ignored by the academy. Change came thanks in large part to the rigorous research and advocacy of New School alumna Gerda Lerner, an influential historian and author who died on January 2. Lerner taught “one of the first courses ever given in the United States on women’s history,” as The New York Times puts it, right here at The New School, while still an undergraduate.
Already a noted author, Lerner was in her 40s when she came to The New School in the early 1960s. The New School, whose Human Relations Center provided the nation’s first-ever continuing education program for mature women, proved to be fertile ground for a project Lerner had in mind: a book about the Grimké sisters, 19th Century American abolitionists. Lerner’s research led her to teaching “Great Women in American History,” the aforementioned women’s history course.
Lerner continued her research on the Grimkés at Columbia University after graduating from The New School, which led to a broader focus on women in history. Then, in 1972, while teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, she created what is widely credited as the first graduate program in women’s history in the country.
Lerner’s pioneering work at The New School added to a tradition of opening up new topics to study. In the century since its founding, the university has offered some of the earliest university-level courses on photography (1934), jazz (1941), African American arts and culture (1946) and media studies (1975). To learn more about The New School’s history, visit http://www.newschool.edu/about/history.