I was stunned to learn of the death of Gerda Lerner, one of the foremost historians of women, and certainly the single greatest trailblazer for field.  As the obituary in the NewYork Times rightly claimed


Lerner …  helped make the study of women and their lives a legitimate subject for historians    


Lerner’s voluminous writings include what is likely the first historian’s published reference to “women’s culture”  and as such she is central to the narrative of The Politics of Women’s Culture   

In a paper given at the October 1974 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, later published in Feminist Studies in Autumn 1975, Lerner argued that

The next stage may be to explore the possibility that what we  call women’s  history may actually be the study of  a separate women’s  culture.  Such a culture would  include not only the separate occupations,  status,  experiences, and rituals of women  but also their consciousness,  which  internalizes  partiarchal assumptions. 

Natalie Zemon Davis,  in addressing that  same Berkshire Conference urged that  

we should now be interested in the history of both women and men. We should not be working on the subjected sex any more than a historian of class can focus exclusively on peasants. Our goal is to understand the significance of  the sexes, of  gender groups in the historical past.”

Speaking historiographically, but clearly applicable to current scholarship a well, Davis argued against “treating women in isolation from men,” and called for a focus on “power.” She dismissed the concept of “culture” as “not very clear-cut in European history until the 19th century”  and claimed that “domestic and public are categories that slip and slide over time.”  
However as we all know, the concept of women’s culture did not fade.  Lerner’s notion of women’s culture as an action “that which women do and the ways in which they do it” something that women do rather than a prescriptive code that binds them, placed her as a unique bridge between activists interested in creating women’s culture and scholars writing about women’s culture. 

Lerner related the the interior world of women described by Smith-Rosenberg, most often called “women’s culture” despite Smith-Rosenberg’s eschewal of the term,   to engagement with power structures. Postbellum female reformers, Lerner claimed,

transpose[d] the support systems and modes of communication of the more traditional female world into new institutional forms. The women of Hull House, Henry Street, and the other settlements created both new forms of the female family and successful reform coalitions.

For Lerner, the political nature of women’s culture depends solely on one’s definition of feminism, and her writing worked to avoid simple divides suggested by the debates around the concept of women’s culture.  From her early work, like the documentary collection  Black Women in White America (1972) to her two volume history of women, Lerner wrote for a broad audience, but remained central to the evolving field she helped to create. Her contribution to the 2004 roundtable U.S. Women’s History: Past, Present, and Future, she reflected on the days “when Women’s History as an academic field had not yet been established” and mapped the future she saw for historians of women.  While we may not all have agreed with her conclusions, she never shied away from making the pointed argument if she saw the need.  In a 2002 interview she emphasized that “”I wanted to show people that whatever contributions I could make as a historian and a theoretician of women’s history and women’s studies came out of my practical life experiences.”


 Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs, 1, No. 1. (1975):1-29.

Gerda Lerner, Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges.  Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1/2 (Autumn, 1975):5-14.

Ellen Dubois, Mari Jo Buhle, Temma Kaplan, Gerda Lerner, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. “Politics and Culture in Women’s History: A Symposium” Feminist Studies 6 (Spring 1980) 26-64.


Natalie Zemon Davis, Women’s History in Transition: The European Case,  Feminist Studies 3 (3/4), Spring/Summer 1976, pp. 83-103

Gerda Lerner Women and History,  The creation of patriarchy Oxford University Press, 1986
 Volume II the creation of feminist consciousness 1993

Felicia R Lee, Making History Her Story, Too  The New York Times 20 July 2002


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