There’s been no period in history–contemporary, ancient or otherwise–which has escaped the close scrutiny of Gerda Lerner. From her first major book, a 1967 biography of abolitionists Angelina and Sarah Grimke, to her work documenting 700 years of women’s bible criticism, Lerner’s scholarship in women’s history has been about a search for what’s missing. It’s been about filling in the holes, challenging the notion that history can be considered complete while it discounts the experiences of half the world’s population.
Now, Lerner is casting a critical eye on her own history with Fireweed: A Political Autobiography. You might expect a book about Lerner’s life to be the story of her career. She taught her first women’s history class as an undergraduate in 1962, and by 1980, had gone on to design the nation’s first doctoral program in the subject at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. But with Fireweed, Lerner focuses instead on her first 40 years: As a survivor of fascist Austria, an immigrant to the United States, as a mother and community activist and as a communist with a husband working in the film industry during the McCarthy era.
Today, at age 81, Lerner divides her time between Madison and a small condominium complex located between Durham and Chapel Hill. Sitting on her couch in front of a coffee table, where sections from two weeks’ worth of the Sunday New York Times are stacked beside a vase of blooming dogwood branches, Lerner describes how her new book charts the personal as historical.
“Nobody lives in a world in which politics does not impinge on their lives,” she says, her accent a hybrid of her Austrian childhood and six decades in the United States. “Growing up under fascism is a very strong incentive to think about the meaning of life, where you come from and where you are going.”
Lerner grew up in Vienna and came of age during the rise of fascism in the 1930s. At 17, she was imprisoned by the Nazis. Forced to sign her own deportation papers, she came to America at 18–the only member of her family to immigrate to the United States. She soon found herself on her own, with limited resources and language skills and a uniquely personal tie to history.
It’s an experience shared by many, but few have gone to the lengths Lerner has to understand her life in a broad historical context. At its heart, Fireweed is a discussion of how she made the choices that inform her politics–as a women’s historian and as a radical. In that respect, the book is as much a biography of false starts and dead ends as it is a story of triumphs.
Lerner writes of the difficulty of finding work as an immigrant in 1940s New York, of lying about her background to get work in an Upper East Side candy store and struggling to get licensed as an X-ray technician. She writes of the difficulty of organizing during McCarthyism, and of the challenges of organizing women across race lines.
And she doesn’t attempt to hide her failures. “The temptation was to make it the usual story,” Lerner says. “You know, the immigrant struggles a little bit, has a few years of hardship and then comes a triumphant ending. But I don’t see it that way.”
To avoid a traditional, heroic narrative is Lerner’s point. Looking back on her life, she’s more interested in her early years than in her lengthy career. “When you get older, every day is a challenge, your strength is not what it was and still you are supposed to function in some way,” she says. “I think that the courage to live in a meaningful way rests on the fact that each person can make a difference in the world. I think that overcoming difficulty and making an effort to live by your own moral compass equips you to accomplish more.”
Lerner’s accomplishments have been far from modest. She’s educated hundreds of historians and feminist scholars and has published 10 books, including Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, The Creation of the Patriarchy–and more recently, Why History Matters, a collection of essays.
With Fireweed, Lerner places her life into the collective history she has worked to uncover–and she does it with optimism. Women’s history is not the story of great women, she says. “Women’s history is the story of ordinary people who struggle, who thrive, who have ambitions. Anonymous, ordinary people. I think I see my life that way.”