Gerda Lerner’s 90th

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.

Gerda Lerner, Ron Maner, and Kate Torrey, at UNC Press, 2009

Gerda Lerner (L), Ron Maner (former UNC Press Managing Editor), and Kate Douglas Torrey (former UNC Press director) at UNC Press, 2009

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.



  1. My dear friend, colleague and mentor: Gerda, our friendship contains so many memories, I’ll simply say publicly that it has been one of the great relationships in my life to have spent so much wonderful time with you, hiking, discussing history, responding to your criticisms, and musing on the vagaries and ambiguities in life.

    with great affection and respect,


  2. Dear Gerda,
    Your work has changed the world. For those of us lucky enough to have been your students, thank you for the life-changing experience. Warm wishes for a very Happy Birthday and sincere thanks for reshaping the historical landscape.

  3. Dear Gerda,
    Happy birthday!!! Thank you for the Women’s History Program at Madison, for the fantastic & rigorous training you offered, and–oh that other thing–changing the world!
    Leslie (and Doris sends her cheers as well!)

  4. Happy 90th Birthday, Gerda! You have a been teacher, friend, and model of scholarship and political engagement for so many decades. What a treasure you are, and what a privilege it is to know you. Keep up the great work.

  5. Dear Gerda,
    It’s been an honor, a privilege, and a joy to work with you. You are an example and an inspiration for us all. Happy 90th Birthday!
    Warm regards,

  6. Pingback: Gerda Lerner is 90 years old : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  7. Sorry my birthday wishes are a few days late, Gerda!

    You have been one of the truly great influences on my thinking and my writing. I feel so very lucky to have had my mind opened and challenged and inspired by you, and in the same moments to have felt your encouragement and protection and faith.
    Much love

  8. Dear Gerda,
    At every stage of the life course you have shown us all how to do it. It is not surprising that you also have something to teach us about the last stage of life.
    With respect and belated birthday greetings,

  9. Gerda,
    Next year’s theme is Our History is Our Strength, which is best understood through your work, writing, and mentoring.
    Thank you for the inspiration you have been to my life as well as to the lives of countless others.

  10. Happy belated birthday! I hope it’s fun for you to know that many, many ordinary people will benefit from your efforts. We will just go on, trying to do some of the same things and more. Be well and be happy.


  11. HAPPY BIRTHDAY Gerda Lerner! You’ve been an inspiration to me in my work and my life, though we have never met. I wish you great happiness in your birthday year.

  12. Thank you for all you’ve given to the world of women. For women studies as has been said, is our strength. I say that from the strength of being black and marginalized for so long. I’m now an elder with knowledge to share of black studies undergirding me, helping to make me a stronger female. Our black teachers, we thank God for, graduating in the sixties in the South I knew enough of black history to be proud, even before Black Power became a symbol for us. Then feminism and women studies gave me the rest. Woman power a beacon for hope. I helped Ohio gain multicultural study materials because of what I learned of black people power in the South. My children couldn’t see integrated people in their Ohio textbooks. The World thanks you and a very happy belated birthday!!

  13. Happy special birthday to you. It has been an honor to share the name Lerner and have your books on my shelf filled with gender equity materials.

  14. Happy Belated Birthday Gerda!!! Although I have just recently discovered you and I will cherrish this new beginning as a mildstone in my life. Reading about you and your life as been very insperational for me.

    I have recently graduated from Cleveland State University with a BA in Sociology and I have become extremely discouraged in pursuing a Masters in History their. Our master courses in history are still geared towards the white male model with no room for growth while a Masters in Women’s Studies in nonexistent!!!. I hope one day to be able to attend Berkley an obtain my Masters in Women Studies and History with you as my insperation.

  15. it is never too late to say Happy birthday to such wanderful woman a true symbol of womanhood. thanks for working towards improving an enabling enviroment for the next generation of women leaders. Thanks, Hajo

  16. Happy Birthday! Thank you for all of your hard work in bringing this study to our daughters and sons! It is difficult to change the mindset of those stuck in their ways to see the world as it really was and not as they chose to accept it. This study is important to understanding the world around us, making improvements and building a better world for our children. Instead of blindly accepting what we are told to believe, we should investigate and discover what is real and learn from it to do better in the world for everyone.

  17. The Peoria, Illinois YWCA is planning a celebration in honor of the Mother of the Modern Feminine Movement, Betty Friedan, who was born in Peoria. February 4, 1921. She live in Peoria until she graduated high school to attend Smith college. The Peoria YWCA Childcare Center will be named after Betty on September 30th, 2010. Betty is well know for one of her books, The Femininie Mystique.

  18. Dear Professor Lerner:
    May your 90th year be filled with wonderful memories.
    Thank you for the work you have done to bring awareness
    of our history to so many of us. The great women who came
    before us have always deserved the attention. As we celebrate
    the 90th anniversary of women winning the vote for us on August 26, Women’s Equality Day, I will remember your contributions to our history.
    Your life is an inspiration. Thank you!
    Jean Richards, Women’s Equality Advocate

  19. Dear Professor Lerner,

    Thank you so much for your work and for inspiring so many of us.

    Pamela Scully

  20. Please forward to her, thank you

    Dear Gerda Lerner,

    Congratulations all the way round.

    I have just finished reading Fireweed, ah, stays with me so. So honest, so well written and what a remarkable life. And how you important you have been to feminist thought–have followed your writings for over 40 years. One gentle reflection on something I read in Fireweed–the attack on the CWA in the early 50s and the attack 25 years earlier that you describe, I think is also attributable to not wanting a independent locus of power among women–i.e. how dare they.

    Thank you for all the wonderful work you have done…

    With a smile, Judith BenDor

  21. Congratulations Gerda on your recent book supporting women, and on your 90th Young Day.
    So many let moths eat holes in their memory-bank before sharing history with the world, so I am correcting an oversight “downunder”, with my book “First Females Above Australia – first 100 years of Australian women pilot firsts”. Features 100 short bios and photos of women pilots who set records but received little or no acclaim in the so-called man’s world of aviation. I have a passion for aviation history, having studied it at University at age 70 when I graduated with a Bachelor of Aviation degree, then a week later was asked to be a university lecturer on the subject. Am now 76 and heading for the speakers’ circuit to spread the message in my book, commemorating eminent Australian women. It is so pleasing to read of you and your amazing work. Here’s to all those born wearing “pink bootees”.

  22. Hello Gerda,

    I am a college student at Mount St. Marys in Los Angeles, which is an all Women college.I am a part of my colleges Associated Student Body and currently taking a leadership course and part of an assignment that we are planning for our action project will be about women leaders and History of women struggles. We feel that you will be the best person to come out and speak to my college or if not I will greatly appreciate if I can do an online interview with you. Please let me know what you think

    Thank you for your time,
    Christina Villagomez .

  23. Happy Belated Birthday to a truly phenomenal woman! Thank you for your tireless efforts in attempting to make sure that history is not only His Story but Her Story as well. We are indebted to strong, brilliant women such as yourself. I hope you know today and always how special and beautiful and brave you are. Thank you for all you have done.

  24. Gerda,

    Thank you for pressing forward as you have done, and continue to do. A rolling stone never catches moss…keep rolling and HAPPY belated BIRTHDAY to you!!!!!!

    God Bless You!!!!!!!!

  25. Dear Gerda,

    Only now, in early November, have I discovered you are celebrating your 90th birthday this year! Congratulations! You are such a treasure to so many people. I am so blessed to be one of those who have known you as teacher, mentor, author, inspiration, and above all, friend. Thank you for your many acts of kindness. To you! Margy

  26. Dear Gerda,
    Happy 90th Birthday and wishes for health and happiness in the year to come! You have paved the way for feminist inquiry and culture building, and without your pioneering work I would have a lot more of my own to do; for that I thank you! Truly, ~Rachel

  27. Dear Gerda,

    I just want to say thank you for clearing a trail and raising awareness for feminist issues. It is because of innovators like you that I am able to take pride in being a woman at my school and participate in things like National Women’s History Month and am able to minor in Women’s studies. You truly are an inspiration. Happy 90th.


Comments are closed.