We write today in anticipation of Gerda Lerner’s 90th birthday, coming up Friday, April 30. Her students and colleagues and publishers who know her as the founder of her field all shout “Happy birthday!”
But whether you know her by name or not, she has certainly shaped the world of ideas around you. And for that, as well as for her ninety years, everyone here at UNC Press is grateful.
And what a fascinating life she has lived, thus far. We celebrate her, and her life’s work as historian, mother, writer, wife, and teacher. In addition to these, Professor Lerner is a founding member of the National Organization for Women and one of the creators of Women’s History Month. She has written a novel and protested nuclear weapons. Born Jewish in Vienna, she escaped great violence there in the thirties, married and divorced and remarried happily to filmmaker Carl Lerner. She began her higher education while in her forties, when her own children were in college, and went on to help create the field of Women’s History.
She co-wrote the screenplay for Black Like Me. She is famous for the rigor of her scholarship and for her plain-speaking, no-nonsense manner. She established the nation’s first women’s history graduate program and is past president of the Organization of American Historians. We, of course, could not begin to fit such a life as hers into a few paragraphs, but we do ask you to take a few minutes over these words to think about how important and varied her life has been and continues to be.
Most recently, as far as her academic career goes, we published her book Living With History/Making Social Change. This collection spans the period from 1963 to the present, with essays encompassing both theoretical writing and her organizational work in transforming the history profession and in establishing Women’s History as a mainstream field. Lerner discusses feminist teaching and the problems of interpretation of autobiography and memoir for the reader and the historian, and she reflects on feminism as a worldview, on the meaning of history writing, and on problems of aging. These essays illuminate how she connected thought and action, how the life she led before she became an academic affected the questions she addressed as a historian, and how the social and political struggles in which she engaged informed her thinking.
We are pleased to make available the complete essay “Reflections on Aging,” which is the final piece in her most recent collection with us. Click here to download the essay. Please read it, pass along this link to it, and let us know what you think.
I’ll leave you with a brief quotation from it:
In our competitive society people are trained to be self-made and independent. But they also have to learn how to help others and how to accept help without feeling demeaned and diminished. Because modern society excludes or marginalizes old people and avoids dealing with death, the healthy and the living are full of fears and have no preparation for the process of aging. The steady courage of older people, their patience, their optimism, and their childlike willingness to experience spontaneous joy could serve as models for the aging generation of their children.
For us, it does, Professor Lerner. And we thank you for that, too.
We invite friends, colleagues, and admirers to offer special birthday greetings in the comments.