MILWAUKEE (AP) — Gerda Lerner spent her 18th birthday in a Nazi prison, sharing a cell with two gentile women arrested for political work who shared their food with the Jewish teenager because jailers restricted rations for Jews.
Lerner would say years later that the woman taught her during those six weeks how to survive and that the experience taught her how society can manipulate people. It was a lesson that the women's history pioneer, who died Wednesday at age 92, said she saw reinforced in American academia by history professors who taught as though only the men were worth studying.
"When I was faced with noticing that half the population has no history and I was told that that's normal, I was able to resist the pressure" to accept that conclusion, Lerner told the Wisconsin Academic Review in 2002.
The author was a founding member of the National Organization for Women and is credited with creating the nation's first graduate program in women's history, in the 1970s in New York.
Her son said she died peacefully of apparent old age at an assisted-living facility in Madison, where she helped establish a doctoral program in women's history at the University of Wisconsin.
"She was always a very strong-willed and opinionated woman," her son, Dan Lerner, told The Associated Press late Thursday. "I think those are the hallmarks of great people, people that have strong points of view and firmly held convictions."
She was born into a privileged Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, in 1920. When the Nazis rose to power, she was imprisoned alongside the two other young women.
"They taught me how to survive," Lerner wrote in "Fireweed: a Political Autobiography." ''Everything I needed to get through the rest of my life I learned in jail in those six weeks."
She became impassioned about the issue of gender equality. As a professor at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., she founded a women's studies program — including the first graduate program in women's history in the U.S.
She later moved to Madison, where she helped establish a doctoral program in women's history at the University of Wisconsin.
Her daughter, Stephanie Lerner, said her mother earned a reputation as a no-nonsense professor who held her students to rigorous standards that some may not have appreciated at the time. One former student wrote to Gerda Lerner 30 years later saying no one had been more influential in her life.
"She said, 'I thought you were impossible, difficult, not understanding, but you gave me a model of commitment that I've never had before,'" Stephanie Lerner recalled. "That's just how she was."
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