Transformational Feminism 

Living With History / Making Social Change
By Gerda Lerner
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009, 248 pp., $32.00, hardcover.

Reviewed by Joanne M. Braxton


Before Alice Walker published The Color Purple (1982); before Henry Louis Gates recovered Our Nig (1982); before Jean Fagan Yellin authenticated Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1987); and before Oxford University Press and the Schomburg Library began reissuing the works of nineteenth and early twentieth-century African American women writers (1988), Gerda Lerner published Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (1972). To be sure, black women writers such as Toni Cade Bambara and Toni Morrison were doing their parts, both as writers and as literary critics, but Lerner brought to a general audience a substantial body of evidence, much of it previously unpublished, that established the lives of African American women as a worthy field of intellectual inquiry.

My copy is a tattered volume with yellowed, crumbling pages. Black Women in White America includes bills of purchase and sale, letters, and excerpts from first-person narratives by school teachers, unionists, and women’s club members. These testaments contributed to the foundations of what some today would call womanist studies. Published at a time when few doctoral dissertations had been written on the lives and work of African American women and few were being approved, this noteworthy book garnered a lot of attention. Here was a white woman, a historian with a degree from Columbia University, saying that the lives of black women matter. For many at that time, black women’s history was a novel idea—which seems to us today, after the explosion of the international and ongoing renaissance in African American women’s literature and culture, unbelievable. Having broken through, we feminist scholars, black and white, have forgotten the breaking; and while yet engaged in struggle, we have forgotten its long and unrelenting nature. No generation lives to see the struggle’s completion, but Lerner’s Living With History/Making Social Change is valuable to feminist and postcolonial scholars in part because it connects the dots.

Throughout her career, Lerner has challenged the way that history has almost always been done—with women in the background. Between Black Women in White America and Living With History, she wrote or edited more than a dozen books that have reshaped the profession of history, staking a claim for women in it. We know these books: The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (1967); The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (1979); The Creation of Patriarchy (1986); and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993) among others. Lerner is incredibly supple intellectually and creatively. In fact, history is her second career; writing novels was her first. She is also a talented screenwriter, author of the screenplay of John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961), which was made into a film by her husband, Carl Lerner. She has also written two autobiographical works: the memoir A Death of One’s Own (1978), about Carl’s death, and Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (2002). Simply listing the genres and titles of these works, we gain a sense of the range of Lerner’s contributions as an artist and an intellectual. Lerner has been referred to as the mother of women’s history; she, however, calls her endeavor “transformational feminism,” by which she means, I think, the power of feminism to address the systemic ills of both capitalism and patriarchy, for the betterment of both men and women.

Lerner is an elegant writer, lyrical, spare, and direct, whose syntax and sentence structure demonstrate her thorough grounding in classical grammar and rhetoric. Such prose, which is pleasurable and effortless to read, requires the utmost attention and skill on the part of the author. In her two most recent volumes, Fireweed and Living With History, Lerner ties together the strands of her life, demonstrating that her political resistance, scholarship, pedagogy, and philosophy have been creative responses to oppression, connected to the massive historical movements of her day.

Fireweed is a traditional autobiography: in it, Lerner writes of the development of her political consciousness during her childhood in prewar Vienna and her escape from Europe after the annexation of Austria by the Nazis, her immigration to the United States, her marriages and motherhood. During the 1950s, she and Carl struggled to survive after he was blacklisted as a filmmaker in Hollywood. She, W.E.B. DuBois, and other radicals stood together at the burial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, while police helicopters circled disrespectfully overhead. Hers is unique, first-person testimony that is valuable in and of itself, regardless of its author’s fame.

Living With History is a very different book. It is similar to DuBois’s Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept (1969), in that it follows the development of Lerner’s historical consciousness as it relates to her emerging, post-Marxist understanding of patriarchy. DuBois was of course no critic of patriarchy, but what he and Lerner have in common, in addition to their affiliation with radical causes, are their extraordinarily complex relationships with history. Like all historians, each documented events and social transformations. But as they look back on their careers, both reflect on their roles as witnesses to particular historical moments and social activists over decades and generations. They ponder futures they will not live to see.

Lerner’s goal in Living With History, she says, is to

show how thought and action have been connected in my life; how the life I led before I became an academic affected the questions I asked as a historian; how the social change struggles in which I was engaged as an academic woman informed my thinking. I want to explain how a decision to change the content of historical scholarship and knowledge so as to give women just representation became a challenge to develop new teaching methods and to create alternate models of academic discourse.

Each essay in the book is rich and complicated. In “A Life of Learning,” Lerner starts by giving credit to Mary Beard for inventing “the concept of Women’s Studies,” but says,

I adapted her example to my own uses, my own time. Unlike her, I was not willing to choose amateur and marginal status in my profession. I believed that in order to write and research the history of women, historians must have the best of traditional training and practice their craft with rigorous skill, and then they must go beyond it.

Next, in “Women Among the Professors of History,” she documents what she calls “a process of transformation.” When she first became a historian, the profession was one in which connections were made and jobs advertised by word of mouth in men’s “smokers.” Coming to “academic life as a mature woman, having been a committed political activist since age fifteen,” Lerner says, she approached these problems organizationally, calling together “the Coordinating Committee on Women in the Historical Profession (CCWHP) at the 1969 convention of the American Historical Association.” She and the other members, she says, “understood by then that women’s actions in their own right and women’s work in association with other women change the discourse and the course of history in ways not well-understood previously.” CCWHP encouraged the development of women’s history courses and women’s studies programs around the United States and Lerner, with the help of a substantial grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, founded the MA Program in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College, “the first graduate program of its kind in the United States”—possibly the world. I particularly enjoyed Lerner’s essay on the establishment of this program, because of the way it details the subterfuges and discouragement that Lerner had to overcome to secure a place for women’s history at her college. This is not just a snapshot of the past: feminist scholars should read this chapter with care, because the same divide-and-conquer methods employed in the 1970s—rumor, innuendo, academic shunning—are alive and well today.

In the book’s second section, “Doing History,” Lerner’s formidable tools of analysis are everywhere evident. In “Taming the Monster: Workshop on the Construction of Deviant Out Groups,” she writes that she grew “tired of merely describing the social construction of differences in society.” She wanted to push students to resist what she calls “the Monster—racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and all other categories of hating deviant out-groups.” The workshop design is eminently practical, consisting of both “intellectual work and group exercises.” I have assigned this essay to my American literature class and plan to employ aspects of it in my other work.

Perhaps the book’s most provocative essay, “Reflections on Aging,” appears in the final section, “Living in History.” Lerner calls this piece “a thematic turning point” in her work. “Aging,” she writes, “is still one of the taboo subjects in our culture; people deal with it in symbols and euphemisms.” The essay presents a powerful analysis of the social construction of aging that simultaneously calls for a new life-affirming philosophy and offers personal and societal solutions, such as multigenerational housing and good, cheap public transportation. We should stop constructing “retirement centers or old people’s homes” that don’t have “a certain percentage of the units reserved for young families with children,” she says, insisting as always on an intergenerational, cooperative model for living holistically in a fractured world.

Lerner also includes in this final section an interview she did in 1995 for the magazine Woman of Power, “Transformational Feminism.” In it, Lerner develops a definition of leadership from the lives of the grassroots activists Ella Baker and Kathryn Clarenbach. Baker was a mentor to many better-known leaders of the civil rights movement; Clarenbach was a founder of the National Organization for Women. Lerner reminds us that true leadership arises organically from service: 

To me, the woman who creates a local organization that continues to function after she is gone is exercising leadership. Leadership is creating something that lives on without you…something that replaces and surpasses you… [I]f you are concerned about how to be a leader, all you are really concerned about is how you can fit into the patriarchal system in order to receive rewards, and that is not the way to go. That is not our problem. Our problem is how to redefine organizational leadership, to figure out what it means and how to sustain it over a long time.

Gerda Lerner’s life, both professionally and personally, has been marked by her courage. It takes courage to publish a book such as this. Patriarchy does not reward reflection, because it leads to original insights and interrupts the straight lines of our competitive lives. But it is during quiet moments that we can connect the dots and revive resistance. Otherwise, we stumble blindly forward, seeking to get ahead, stepping on or over whomever we must in order to advance.


Joanne M. Braxton is the Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Professor of the Humanities at the College of William and Mary.


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