Narrator: Gerda Lerner (1921-2013)
Interviewer: Barry Teicher (1949-2016)
Date: 18 and 22 November 2000
Transcribed by: Teresa Bergen
Duration: 4 hours, 3 minutes
Oral History Project Interview #554
Gerda Lerner Biography:
Gerda Lerner (1920-2013) served as the University of Wisconsin-Madison Robinson-Edwards Professor of History from 1980-1991 and was a founding force in the study of women’s history. Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna in 1920, Lerner was strongly influenced by her mother, Ilona, who advocated sexual liberation, vegetarianism, and yoga. In 1938, at the age of 18, Gerda was arrested and held prisoner by the Nazis as collateral for her father, who had fled Vienna for Liechtenstein. A year later in 1939, she arrived in the United States where she met then-boyfriend Bernard Jensen, also from Vienna, who had sponsored her arrival, and they married. They divorced a year later, once each had solidified their status within the country. In 1941, she married Carl Lerner, and the two moved to Los Angeles.
After surviving the years of McCarthyism in the United States, Lerner began her studies at the age of 38, enrolling in Columbia University. There she earned both a BA and PhD in six years, completing a dissertation on the white abolitionist Grimké sisters. In 1968, Lerner joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College, where she established, along with Joan Kelly, the first master’s degree in women’s history in the United States. In 1984, Lerner joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but only on the condition that a second faculty member in the field be hired alongside her, Linda Gordon. At UW-Madison, Lerner created a PhD track in women’s history and later helped other universities build similar graduate training programs.
Lerner was a prolific author, writing a variety of foundational historical studies, including Black Women in White America (1972), The Creation of the Patriarchy (1987, winner of the Joan Kelly Prize), and The Creation of the Feminist Consciousness (1993). In 1955, she penned a novel about Vienna before the German occupation entitled No Farewell (in German, Es gibt keinen Abschied), and in 1978, she published a memoir, A Death of One’s Own, about her experiences caring for and dealing with Carl’s 1973 death. In 2003, she published her autobiography, Fireweed.
Lerner received international commendations for her research and teaching, including the Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Historical Writing, the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Special Book Award, and the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art. Lerner was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1998), and is the subject of the 2016 documentary film Why Women Need to Climb Mountains. The Lerner-Scott prize, given annually to the writer of the best dissertation in women’s history, is named in her honor, alongside fellow trailblazer Anne Firor Scott. Lerner passed away in Madison on January 2, 2013, and is survived by her children, Dan and Stephanie, and four grandchildren.
Over two interviews, historian Gerda Lerner reflects on numerous topics including: Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College; Purpose of establishing a graduate program in women’s history; Arrival at UW; Development of Women’s History Program at UW; Robinson-Edwards chair in the Department of History; Funding for women’s history graduate students; Importance of women’s history; Outreach activities; Impact of women’s history program at UW; Research on the women’s movement and women’s organizations; Founding of NOW; The Madison Plan and race relations at UW; Teaching at Long Island University-Brooklyn; Creating a women’s history community at Sarah Lawrence College and at UW; Teaching women’s history; Retirement; Research interest in Jewish history; Research interest in hierarchic structures; Closing remarks.
You can jump to each of the five cassette tapes here: Tape 1, Tape 2, Tape 3, Tape 4, Tape 5
**To access the OHMS oral history page for Gerda Lerner, which allows listeners to search text or keywords and to listen to specific sections of this interview, click here. NB: Due to some technical issues, the time codes embedded in the following transcript do not correspond to the time codes in Lerner’s interview in OHMS.**
Gerda Lerner: –conscience. Would they ever be able to get a job.
Barry Teicher: Hmm, interesting. In light of what happened, that’s very interesting. Yeah.
Lerner: Yeah. And I said, well, first of all, what they’re getting is a PhD in American history at the University of Wisconsin. And their specialty is women’s history. So yes, they will get a job. And secondly I said, this is a trend that’s not a fad. It’s going to change the profession. And we will be pioneers. We will be making a national impact. I had no question about that. So—
End Track 1 Test.
Lerner: Tell me if I talk—
Teicher: This is Barry Teicher of the oral history project. Today is November 18, the year 2000. I’m at Gerda Lerner’s home on Hammersley Road in Madison. And we’re here to talk about her work with the women’s history project at the University—
Teicher: Program, excuse me, at the University of Wisconsin. You came to the university from Sarah Lawrence. Could you talk a little bit about the transition from there? Why you came to Madison? How you learned about the opening.
Lerner: Well, I had been at Sarah Lawrence for twelve years. No mic necessary. And I had there created a Women’s Studies Program. And then very shortly thereafter, a women’s history major. Which was in 1972. And it was, I believe, the first graduate program in the country. And, to my knowledge, in the world. I don’t know of any other place where they had them any sooner than that. And that program was very, I will talk about that later perhaps. And after about ten years of running that program, I felt that due to my age, since I had come into the profession very late, I got my PhD at the age of forty-six. So I felt that if I ever were to train a group of graduate students, I would have to go to a university. And I also had analyzed and felt that we needed to move from women’s studies and women’s history as an MA program into a regular PhD program.
At the time that I had that notion, there were, if a person wanted to get a PhD in women’s history, they could go to about six or eight institutions in the country. And they could work with one particular woman who would allow them to do their dissertation on a women’s history subject. For example, Mari Jo Buhle (b. 1943) is a very important pioneer in this. She was at Brown University in American Studies. And she trained dozens and dozens of women, gave them a PhD. Nancy Cott (b. 1945) at Yale. Linda Kerber (b. 1940) at Iowa. There were people all over the country who were in a regular history department, professors of history. And if a student came and wanted 00:03:00 to do a dissertation, they could do that.
I felt that it was absolutely necessary to prove to the academic world and to the world at large that studying the history of half the human race deserved a more thorough training than just simply doing a dissertation in documents pertaining to women. And I felt that the only way that that could be done was to create such a program. Someplace. And I should say that I had spent some time analyzing how paradigm shifts in history were institutionalized. I made it my business.
Teicher: Oh, really? Interesting.
Lerner: Yeah. I studied how Black history became part of history. I was particularly impressed by people like Charles Beard (1874-1948), Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), who made, who created, William Appleman Williams (1921-1990), people who created a new paradigm in their field. And how did they get other people to accept it? And I should say that I had that I had that in mind all along that my work, my goal was to change, to change the history profession. And to change the way women were treated in history. And I tried to say to myself when I started this as a graduate student at Columbia in 1962, I’m sorry, 63, that I only had, I figured, fifteen years to do this. I was wrong about that. I figured at the most twenty years. And if you want to do this in twenty years, how do you do it? I mean, I really tried to analyze that.
And I noticed that there were two ways to do it. Number one, you write a significant book that you know—
Teicher: Starts the field, yeah.
Lerner: It doesn’t have to be a book. I mean, Turner wrote an essay. Right?
Lerner: So in order to do that, I had to be a well-trained historian in a traditional manner. And I had to be, I had to know everything that the best 00:06:00 trained historians know. That’s why I went to Columbia. And I sure got a traditional training.
Teicher: (laughs) Yeah.
Lerner: And then the other thing is, that these people went to major universities and trained a bunch of graduate students. Well here I was, close to sixty years of age, and I had never trained a graduate student. Of my several hundred students at Sarah Lawrence, thirteen went on to get graduate PhDs in women’s history with other professors. And it really hurt me. I really felt—I mean, I was delighted. But I felt badly about it, too. Because I should have trained those students.
Teicher: That’s right.
Lerner: And it was on account of me that they went to those other places. And some of them are very outstanding historians, like Peggy [Ann] Pascoe (1954-2010). She has transformed the field of ethnic studies. A whole number of them.
So I decided that I better make a change. I better make a move from a liberal arts college that didn’t give any graduate degrees except the MA to a major university. And I let it be known in the profession. I told all the people I knew that I’m looking for a job in any history department that will allow me to do a program in women’s history to give the PhD inside the history department. Not in women’s studies. That was another strategy that I figured out. It had to be inside history. Because if it was in women’s studies, they would marginalize it. And I wanted it to be, I wanted to transform the history profession. So I did it inside history.
Well at the time, I was negotiating with three places. The offer came from Wisconsin. And I was negotiating with the University of Arizona at Tucson and I was negotiating with Lewis and Clark College and the University of Oregon in Portland. And they offered me a joint appointment. I would work half the time at University of Oregon and give a PhD program for graduate students and half the time at Lewis and Clark. And at Arizona, they offered me just what I wanted.
And I should say that at that time already, I was a passionate hiker and backpacker. And I was very, very attracted to Arizona.
Teicher: Oh, that’s a beautiful area. Yes indeed.
Lerner: And I was very attracted to Oregon for that reason.
Teicher: Yes, indeed.
Lerner: I was not the least bit 00:09:00 attracted to Wisconsin.
Teicher: (laughs) Yes, indeed.
Lerner: And Arizona made me a better offer than Wisconsin financially. But I analyzed the state of the history department in the different schools. And since I wanted, what I wanted to do was in a relatively short time—fifteen years, ten years—to create a graduate program that would be a model for the rest of the nation, I figured I’d better go to the best history department, and that was Wisconsin.
Teicher: Yeah. Yeah.
Lerner: And that is the reason I came to Wisconsin. And I came to Wisconsin knowing not one single person in the entire state. It’s one of the few places where I have no friends. At all. I mean, I have former students and contacts all over the nation. But not in Wisconsin. So it was very deliberate on my part.
Teicher: The history department was hiring you. And part of it was to start the women’s program.
Lerner: No. it was the only reason I came was to start the program. And that was from the beginning.
Teicher: Okay. That was all—
Lerner: Now I should say, and I will say, because this is part of the record, that I had great hesitation about coming here for another reason.
Teicher: What’s that?
Lerner: Other than the location. The cold in the winter didn’t bother me. That wasn’t part of my thinking. Well, it’s the Robinson Edwards Chair.
Teicher: Okay. Let’s get into that.
Teicher: You came here and you were awarded the Robinson Edwards Chair in history.
Lerner: Yeah. Well, I’m trying to say, and I believe this is correct, 1980. Nineteen eighty I had published one, two, three, four, five, Teaching Women’s History is a book, six. Six works in women’s history. Six books in women’s history. Innumerable articles. And I had, I was a recipient of an AAUW fellowship, 00:12:00 an SSRC fellowship, a Rockefeller grant, two Rockefeller grants. An NEH grant. An Aspen Summer Institute grant. I mean, an appointment to the Aspen Summer Institute. A Ford Foundation grant and a Guggenheim. I mean, this is—
Teicher: Okay, we’re back here.
Lerner: I’m not bothered by it. I’m laughing, because they didn’t have it—
Teicher: We’re on again.
Lerner: Okay. And I had a grant from FIPSE in addition. I forgot that. So this is how I came here. And I came here and—well, the year, two years before, there was an opening at Wisconsin for the Robinson Edwards Chair advertised in the—
Lerner: —professional journals.
Teicher: Professional journals, right.
Lerner: And as is the custom, when an appointment, it was a senior appointment, a chair appointment. And usually those are not advertised. So this was just announced. And then you wait for letters, right, that you send to senior people when you want to make a senior appointment. And you usually ask them, I mean, it’s standard to say, “Would you yourself be interested? And would you suggest others?”
When you make an appointment like that, let’s say for the fall of 1978, that letter goes out before the AHA. That is, it goes out in the fall of 1979. I mean, 77.
Teicher: Seventy-seven, right.
Lerner: Well, the letter went out in April of 78. Which is so to speak, that is to say, we send this letter but we don’t expect to make an appointment.
Teicher: Mm hmm. Interesting.
Lerner: Okay? I got such a letter. And it was signed by Professor [Stanley] Kutler (1934-2015), who was chairing that committee. I was so insulted by it. I thought it was such an outrage that such a letter would be sent at that time, that I called. At that time there were maybe six women in the country qualified to have a chair in women’s history. I mean, you have to have two books.
Lerner: You have to have two books and you have to have so many years of teaching and some standing in the profession. There were six people. I mean, I knew them all. And I called them all up. And they all had received that letter and they were furious.
Teicher: Oh, really.
Lerner: We were all furious. And I asked each of them, what would you do? And they said, we wouldn’t even answer it. And that’s what I did. I didn’t answer it. 00:15:00
Well, imagine my surprise a year later, when in October or so, I get a phone call from Professor [Diane] Lindstrom (1944-2018) saying to me would I be interested in applying for the Robinson Edward Chair.
Teicher: This is Diane Lindstrom from the University of Wisconsin.
Lerner: And I said, “You must be kidding.”
And she said, “How come?”
And I told her. I said, “I wouldn’t come near this place.”
And she said, “Well, it’s different now. I’m chairing the committee.”
And then the chairman of the department, who has since left, called me up and confirmed the fact that they were seriously seeking to make an appointment. This was not just a Mickey Mouse operation to show that they are not discriminating. Which was what the first one was.
And then they told me they will interview me at the AHA, which is what you usually do when you make a senior appointment. And they interviewed me at the AHA. And I said, “Well, I don’t know if I can trust this after what happened last year.” I was quite frank about that. And I said, “The only reason I’m interested in coming here is that I want to set up this model program. And if the department doesn’t want it, I don’t even want to come near you and waste your time and mine. I have other offers.” You know.
And they said no, no. They were very interested. Which, by the way, this really surprised me, this discussion. Because it didn’t reflect the way, I mean, no, you can—all right. Yeah. Go on. I made clear from the beginning that I was only interested if the department really wanted to make a commitment to women’s history. And they convinced me that they were very sincere about it. And that of course there was no unanimity about it. This was a new thing. And I pointed out to them that the fact that they are the place where they had the outstanding American history program in the 60s. Where Professor [Allan George] Bogue (1921-2016), for example, was a pioneer in the study not just of the frontier, but of statistics in history, cliometrics. Where William Appleton Williams had revolutionized and changed foreign policy studies, where Merle Curti (1897-1996) had started intellectual history, I said, where you had the finest labor history collection 00:18:00 in the nation.
Teicher: Mm hmm. At Wisconsin Historical Society.
Lerner: Yeah. But this and you had a fine woman historian who was a labor historian, Barbara Melosh (b. 1950), that this was the place to do it. That was my argument. So they objected that well how did we know that we could take students in good conscience? Would they ever be able to get a job?
Teicher: Interesting. (laughs) In light of what happened, that’s very interesting. Yeah.
Lerner: Yeah. And I said well, first of all, what they’re getting is a PhD in American history at the University of Wisconsin. And their specialty is women’s history. So yes, they will get a job. And secondly I said, this is a trend that’s not a fad. It’s going to change the profession. And we will be pioneers. We will be making a national impact. I had no question about that. So apparently I convinced them.
Then when I came here to be interviewed, in the interim, I talked to the chair. Who was, by the way, Stanley Payne. I said because of my long history of struggling to set up the master’s program at Sarah Lawrence, I was not interested in coming there at Wisconsin unless the department enacted formally and by vote, and approved by the dean, the establishment of the women’s history program. PhD program. And he agreed that that was the right way to go. And he and I worked together on designing that program. And Professor Lindstrom and Professor Melosh and Judy [Judith Walzer] Leavitt (b. 1940), from the beginning.
And I sent a blueprint, I made clear to them that I wanted the program to be entirely under the aegis, it would be part of the American history program. That means that every rule and regulation that applies to the American history program, we would follow. But that in certain areas, there would be separate standards. And I made clear what they would be. And number one I wanted, at that time, the department did not require a master’s essay. You could do it, but you didn’t have to do it in order to enter a PhD program. You could take an MA by taking extra courses. I said I would not want that. I wanted a master’s essay. Because I 00:21:00 wanted to be able to screen out the students that could not do the PhD before they went into the whole study.
Lerner: That was one condition. The second was that I would let the admissions committee, which changes every year, for the American history program, they would screen the candidates that applied to my program. And if they wanted to exclude anyone, they could do so. But that I would have a veto over the people they approved. Only to the extent that I could say, “Student A can be in the American history program, but I don’t want them in women’s history.” So I narrowed my jurisdiction very greatly there. On purpose. Because I wanted the department to feel comfortable with the students I was admitting.
And in practice, it worked out quite differently. Much better than I had hoped for. They were concerned, of course, the people who opposed the program or had misgivings about it were concerned that I, you know, they have this idea that women’s history was this feminist fad.
Teicher: Mm hmm. Right.
Lerner: And that we were sitting around holding hands with each other and doing autobiography, you know. (Teicher laughs) And they had it in their mind that the place would be filled with incompetent, touchy feely students. You know.
Well they learned in the first year that I was a much tougher professor than most of the ones around in the department as far as standards is concerned. And I established that reputation very quickly. This was not, this was not a yoyo program.
Teicher: Right. Right.
Lerner: What actually happened—well, let me finish the negotiations.
Teicher: Then we’ll get back to what happened.
Lerner: Right. And then I expected, and it was in writing, that every student who entered the program would have to have either an MA or do an MA with us, and would have had an MA essay. Now I also specified that in rare cases that I might have a student whom the admissions committee might have misgivings about, and who I would feel had the potential. In which case it was my privilege to argue that with the admissions committee. But if they voted me down, they would have the decision.
Teicher: Final say. Right.
Lerner: So I was very modest in my, very careful to be very modest in my demands in this regard with admissions. 00:24:00 And then I specified that the content of what exactly were the requirements. And the requirements were that they had to take a year-long course in women’s history on the graduate level. That they had to take two women’s history graduate seminars. The year-long survey course in women’s history, plus two graduate seminars in women’s history, one graduate seminar in an allied field, which could be history of medicine, family history, labor history, something like that. Social history. Okay? And the rest would be choice, as any American history graduate. And that their dissertation had to be in primary sources pertaining to women’s history. That would mean that on the dissertation committee, a professor in women’s history would be the main professor.
Teicher: Right. Major professor. Correct.
Lerner: But it also meant from the point of view of the student is that every student of this program had in fact two PhDs. They had a PhD in the American history program and they had a PhD in women’s history. Which I purposely designed to make this a very demanding program. I did that on purpose. I did it fully conscious of what it meant. And I expected that I would have like two applicants a year, I’d be very happy.
There were eight people waiting for me the fall I arrived, okay? And it turned out that we attracted the best students, year after year, that the department had seen in twenty years, okay? And my struggle was, I sometimes took students who didn’t look so splendid on paper. Because I know that from the past, that some of these people are fantastic. And I had some struggles like that with the admissions, where the committee said, well, this student doesn’t have a four point or a 3.7 grade average. I said, that’s true. But she’s written a book. (laughter) Or she’s done something else, you know. I took chances on that.
Teicher: Did you generally win on those?
Lerner: Oh, yeah. Always. The department, after they saw the students I was bringing in, I had no problems about admissions. If I wanted to admit somebody, they always said yes. And I don’t think I 00:27:00 I mean, the record shows that we had very, very few, we had two students that dropped out because of no money. And one student who dropped out after, before the dissertation. And who became a highly successful person, by the way, whom I followed very closely, who was considered the failure in the department, I mean, okay.
So that was the program. And then I made certain demands on staffing. And the demands were that I said you cannot run a, you cannot run a decent graduate program in any subject with one professor specializing in that subject. And you have to have two. So I needed, you know what an FTE is.
Teicher: Yes, right.
Lerner: All right. If I was going to be the senior professor, and Barbara Melosh would teach in the program some of her time, like a quarter of the time is all she wanted. Or half time, maybe. She would teach a labor history course that included women and she would teach a course on women, women’s economic role or something like that. That’s one and a half. Diane Lindstrom said she did not want to continue teaching in the program because it wasn’t her field of interest. She had just been of service to try and start this. And that was agreeable to me because I made the demand that nobody could teach in this program as a women’s history specialist unless their research was in history.
Teicher: Mm hmm. Right.
Lerner: I want to say that that distinguished us from a lot of other programs in the country that later were set up where anybody, if you developed a course in women’s history, you were the women’s history specialist. And I never went for that. That’s part of my being a formalist and very strict. So that excluded Diane automatically, and she agreed with that. There was no bad feeling about that at all. She probably told you that.
Teicher: I didn’t talk to Diane.
Lerner: Oh, you didn’t talk to her. Okay. Well, anyway. So, I wanted another half FTE. I wanted two FTEs in American women’s history and an FTE in European women’s history. 00:30:00 That was in my contract before I came here. It was written down. The department voted on it. The dean approved it. And they said to me, you can’t expect that all in one year. We will do that over a period of two or three years. All right. All I have to tell you is that to this day, we don’t have a European women’s history appointment, okay?
Lerner: All right.
Lerner: Yeah. So when this was voted on and the negotiation was finished, I came to this place. And I had told them beforehand that I had a Guggenheim. I’d just gotten a Guggenheim. I wasn’t going to give that up. And I said I will move here [break in tape]
Teicher: You said you would move here and work on your Guggenheim, but not become involved in the department for the first year.
Lerner: Yeah. And I didn’t. I got acquainted with the faculty and made some friends and so on, but I didn’t do anything. And then the following year, 1981, I began the program.
Teicher: Before we begin the actual program, you were hired as the Robinson Edwards professor. Could you give some background on what is a most truly amazing story?
Lerner: Well, it’s a very sad story. Florence Robinson was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in the early 1920s. She got her PhD in American history and was unable to find a job because she was a woman. She had a very good friend named Martha Edwards who also got a PhD in American history from the University of Wisconsin and was unable to get a job. Florence Robinson’s father was a trustee of Beloit College. And through his influence, she got a job in the home economics department of Beloit College. And that’s where she spent the few years that she taught. And apparently part of her duties was to make tea at faculty meetings and serve cookies. Which she did.
In 1927, she made a will giving fifty thousand dollars to the University of Wisconsin. This was at a time when a full professor’s salary was six thousand dollars. Which soon would earn six thousand dollars. And she said in that will that this, as soon as six 00:33:00 thousand dollars a year is earned, this professor shall be hired and shall be a woman. And she shall be in any field of American history. And part of her assignment is that she shall not be an outreach, and she will not be required to do any duties that her male colleagues do not do.
The university had to wait a couple, she died in 29, I believe.
Teicher: Yes, 1929.
Lerner: The university had to wait a couple of years for the money to accumulate to give six thousand dollars a year. At which point the heirs sued. The presumptive heirs, some cousins or something, sued that she was out of her mind when she made that donation. And that was thrown out by the court. In 32. Thirty and 31, I believe. Whereupon the university went to court to ask the court to allow it to appoint a male professor. On the grounds that there weren’t any female professors qualified to take this job. And the court, after many years of wrangling, decided that in the Dartmouth case, I believe in 1820, it was established that if you accept money with a certain provision, you are obliged to fulfill that provision. Florence Robinson had expected no better. And had put a clause in that if within five years of the execution of this will the university had not acted to appoint a professor, the money should go to the University of Chicago. And it was at that point that the university went to the court to fight—
Teicher: To litigate it. Right.
Lerner: This took them into the 1940s. After which they were told by the court that they had to appoint a woman professor. Well, they managed to be unable to find a qualified woman between 1940 and 1978. Now, I ask you to do the accurate mathematics that if somebody deposits fifty thousand dollars in 1928 and leaves it untouched until 1978, what should that amount be?
Lerner: That amount 00:36:00 has never been found. At the time that I came I was told that unfortunately the Robinson-Edwards Chair endowment was so small that it only paid for half of my salary. And the other half—of course, the salary had gone up from six thousand—
Teicher: Right, of course. Certainly.
Lerner: —in the interim. And that the dean had graciously agreed to pay the other half of my salary.
Teicher: So it would be the L&S dean, Dave Cronon [Edmund David Cronon] (1924-2006).
Teicher: This would be the L&S dean, Dave Cronon.
Lerner: Yes. And I was very naïve at the time I came on the subject of chairs. For example, I didn’t know that every chair has an endowment. And that when you get a chair, that you’re supposed to get research money. I didn’t know that. And it took me two or three years to find out that I had the single chair that had not a penny attached to it. Not a cent. All the other chair professors were getting fifty thousand a year, eighty thousand a year, thirty-five thousand a year, whatever. I was getting nothing.
Then I did a little research on the chair. And I find out this is the only chair for a woman in the entire L&S.
Teicher: Is it really? Or was it?
Lerner: Yes. At which point I went to the chairman and tried to verify this. And he said, yeah, that’s so. But that’s because the endowment is so small. Well, I did some further research on that. (laughs) And I then, about 1982, I went to the then, to the chancellor, Irving Shain (1926-2018).
Teicher: Okay. You went to see the chancellor?
Lerner: Yeah. And I wanted to introduce myself. And I wanted to show him what I was doing here. And I sent him a summary of what the department, of what I had done, how many students I’d had, what kind of fellowships they had gotten. None of them had graduated yet. What I was trying to do. And I prepared a little three or four-page summary. And then I came and verbally told them this. And he said, “This is the best report I’ve had since I’ve been in this office.” I said, “Well, that’s nice. Now maybe I can talk to you about some of the problems I have. (Teicher laughs) Because one problem is, I still haven’t got—” Oh, the problem was at that point that a year after I left, Barbara Melosh left 00:39:00 the department. So I ended up running this program by myself with Judy Leavitt. And Florencia Mallon came later. She wasn’t there yet. And they weren’t hiring in American women’s history. And they weren’t hiring in European. So I told him that I had eight students, I had at that time twelve students. Twelve graduate students. I had five or six every year that I could take. But I had no staffing. And worse than that, I said I had not a penny of money for the students. Nothing. Well, he said, nobody else in the history department has any money, either. They have to apply for these competitive grants. So I pointed out to him that of the twelve students I had, I had received more than, where is that sheet? Here. That they had received, they had won in the department and university-wide competition every year. I had one won in the first year, two in the next year. And I had received one history fellowship and another history fellowship, which are all competitive. So that I had brought these outstanding students. And I was losing them left and right because they couldn’t—
Teicher: Mm hmm. They were going to schools that offered them financial support.
Lerner: Yeah. And I said what I want, and I said, “I have this chair that doesn’t have a penny of research money. And what I want you to do is give me enough research money so I can employ a PA. And through that, I can support a student with my chair.” I said, “I don’t want the money for myself. I have enough money. I’m not interested in it. I want the money to be able to support some students. I want the money to be able to undertake a project so I can support an additional student.”
Well, you notice that every year I employed one student as a project assistant. The first year, I did that with my own funds. The second year, he gave me—
Teicher: The WARF money.
Lerner: No. He gave me a fellowship. He gave me like ten thousand dollars that I could get for the Robinson-Edwards chair. He said that was from his own discretion, and only as long as I hold the chair. I said, “Okay. I’m not fussy about where I get the money from. I’ll take it.” (Teicher laughs) And then, the next thing I know, I get this 1983, I get another chair. And that was, I think, entirely due to Shain.
Teicher: Shain, yeah.
Lerner: Yeah. Because my department 00:42:00 chairman didn’t even know about it.
Teicher: Yes, then I would say it was entirely due to, yeah.
Lerner: And he was very, very upset when he heard it.
Teicher: Why was he upset? Because he hadn’t heard it through the proper channels?
Lerner: Because I wasn’t his favorite.
Teicher: (laughs) Got you.
Lerner: Nor was my program his favorite. So anyway, he was, he didn’t say he was upset. He said he was pleased. But he had no idea. This was fourteen professors for the entire system got this magnificent WARF professorship that was good for seven years and paid half of your salary.
Teicher: Oh, my.
Lerner: So I figured out it was better than the Macarthur. The Macarthur is only five years for half the salary. And I will say that that grant enabled me to write my two major books. Without it, I couldn’t have done it.
Teicher: That’s great.
Lerner: Because I was able to take a half a year off every year. And I was able to do major work. I could not have done it with the kind of schedule I kept. So, provost, was it Provost Shain? No, he was the chancellor.
Teicher: Chancellor. He was chancellor.
Lerner: I saw him a couple of times afterwards. He wanted me always to report to him. But he was wonderful. He was very supportive. He’s a chemist. He knows nothing about women’s history. But he thought that I was doing a great job of putting a new program on the map that was nationally reviewed. We had publicity in the New York Times. We had publicity all over the country, you know? And I was doing this with no money.
Then he also put me wise. And then Dean Cronon put me wise to where I could apply for additional funds for the students. And you noticed that we got a Knapp Fellowship. In 1983, I secured a grant from the Knapp Fellowship. And the Knapp Fellowship grant is heavily influenced by the dean. And I, but in fact, this doesn’t show it. The entire time that I was here, I supported between one and four students a year on projects that I initiated and did unpaid work for.
Teicher: How much time did you spend doing this?
Lerner: Well, I’m trying to tell you. One student I had as my PA through the Robinson-Edwards chair. Right? That’s one. No, I’m saying it wrong. I didn’t get ten thousand dollars until 00:45:00 much later. I only got six thousand dollars, just enough at the time to give a fellowship.
Teicher: A fellowship, right.
Lerner: That’s what Shain gave me. He just gave me enough for the fellowship. So I supported one through the chair. When I got the WARF chair, I supported two. I paid for a private PA for me with the WARF chair money. And the second.
The Knapp grant supported two fellowships for, well, I made five out of it. I took three full fellowships and two-part fellowships.
Teicher: This is for 84-85.
Teicher: We’re working off of a paper that will be in Professor Lerner’s file. It’s on grants.
Lerner: Yeah. And you can see that in 85-86, we had a Knapp Fellowship. And then by that time, all the students had begun to make themselves felt in the department. And they were getting PAs from other professors, as you can see.
Teicher: Yes, you see Kaminsky, Gordon, Bogue.
Lerner: All of these other professors gave it to them. Right. But in addition to that, I ran the following unpaid projects. The bibliography on the history of American women supported Marie Laberge for three years. I forget where I got the money. I think I got it from the university to do a bibliography. All I did was pay her to—
Teicher: To do the grant?
Lerner: Yeah, and me supervising.
Lerner: Then I started the project—I’m forgetting. I don’t know. Then I started the project on the oral history project. And for that I wrote six grants and nickeled and dimed it and was able to support three graduate students for three years. Now the writing of all those grants, the administration of the grants and the supervision of the grants was all done by me over and above. I never received a salary increment from it. I never received credit from it. Nobody ever said thank you for it. It was just done. In the end, all the students, one came with a Mellon Fellowship. That’s a national competition. Two, one each year. A Newcomb Fellowship is a national competition. Richardson Fellowship is in the history of medicine. 00:48:00 NRS Fellowship is national competition. When you look at this, I mean, here we had twenty-two students. And we had one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Twenty, twenty fellowships and project assistants. I mean, I had a fantastic group of students.
Teicher: Yeah. I don’t know how you did it. That’s amazing.
Lerner: So that’s how it was. Now, I had to fight in the department. And wait. And be voted down. And fight again to hire another American history professor. And this was only after I got the WARF fellowship. When I pointed out that I’m supposed to run a graduate program with a half time appointment?
Teicher: (laughs) And one that’s becoming nationally recognized. One that has very distinguished students.
Lerner: Yeah. And by the way, part of the WARF Fellowship provided that any department in which a professor got a WARF Fellowship was obliged to make a junior appointment that year. Because they got a half a salary given to them. So we made part time appointments, guest appointments. And then finally they approved Linda Gordon. And I pointed out that at my age, I was only going to be there a few more years. So we needed somebody else. So I got Linda Gordon in.
Teicher: Where was Linda from? Was she on the faculty?
Lerner: She was at Boston University.
Teicher: Boston. Okay. How did you come to select her?
Lerner: Well, we had a search committee. Regular search. I knew her since she was a graduate student. I know everybody in the field of women’s history since they’re graduate students, you know? We all grew up together. I was always impressed with her work and I thought that her book was really first-rate. At the time, she only had that one book and then the essay, the collection of documents. But I know what she did. And I chaired that search committee.
And then, when I had Linda in place, well, the issue of the appointment in European women’s history was constant. Every, I mean, every year I applied to the department for that job to be filled. And every year I was pushed aside for something else more important. And then there were two searches made in the last few years.
Teicher: Which did not result in the hire, obviously.
Lerner: Yes. When a field is very new, 00:51:00 like in 1978 when they were looking for somebody to fill the Robinson-Edwards Chair, they didn’t have many choices. Like I said, there were perhaps six or eight professors in the whole country who were qualified by statute. Where you didn’t lower the standard by bringing them in. Because this is a small field. Ten years later, there were dozens. It wasn’t like there was no choice. So when year after year search committees can’t find a candidate, that’s department politics. And one of our candidates that we turned down immediately got a job at Stanford. Another candidate got a job at Brown. Okay? So you can’t tell me we didn’t have the quality. The politics was strong.
It’s a tradition in the department that professors when they retire cannot be involved in the search for their successor, okay? And that usually some years pass before you make a reappointment. So I was very concerned about what would happen to the program if the only person left was Linda Gordon. And Judy Leavitt worked with a few of our students, one or two. And she was always willing to take our students and let them work on women’s history in the department of medicine. In the history of medicine. But very few students that came here wanted that. They wanted a history degree. Okay? So Judy, while she’s available and eminently qualified and a wonderful mentor was not able to take many of our students.
Lerner: Barbara Melosh, as I say, left.
Teicher: What about Florencia Mallon?
Lerner: Well, Florencia Mallon and Steve Stern, when they came, a year or two after they came, a very strong presence in the women’s history of Latin America. And they have taken, they were, many of our students, several of our students worked with them. But since the program is in American women’s history, they could take that only as a minor. So I was running this program. You know, you talk about shorthanded and understaffed. I should add to that in light of the way, for example, Jewish Studies was started with a two-million-dollar endowment with a paid staff, with secretaries, I never had a secretary. I never had a part time secretary. I never had 00:54:00 a staff person. I never got release time for all the administrative work I was doing. Never. Okay? This was all overload.
When I got the WARF Fellowship, I asked that they hire another person. Which was mandated on it.
Lerner: Well, they said, you’re trying to appoint your successor. I said, that’s right. I’m trying to make sure that there’s enough staffing that the program doesn’t collapse the day I retire. Yes. I’m not appointing my successor. I’m not saying who it should be. I’m not saying, you know.
Well, anyway, we did finally get the authorization to hire on the junior level. And hired Jeanne Boydston (1944-2008). And I chaired that search committee and I had to fight. So in a sense, I created those two jobs and I fought for them. And I chaired this search. It was understood and I won on that and I got the department to agree that she was not supposed to be considered the substitute for my, not my replacement. You know.
Teicher: Yeah. Right.
Lerner: But as it turned out, she was. Because Linda left.
Lerner: You see?
Teicher: Is Jeanne the only one there now?
Lerner: Yeah. So we’re back to—
Teicher: Square one.
Lerner: We’re back to square one with the difference that they are not picking. And as soon as Linda and Jeanne took over and I left, they took one or two or three students a year.
Teicher: Why did they make that decision? Do you know?
Lerner: Because they felt they didn’t want to work like I did.
Teicher: Like you did.
Lerner: They felt they were overloaded and they were right. They were overloaded. I was overloaded.
Teicher: Well, the numbers, if you look at them, are really pretty astonishing. The number of students that you had. This isn’t a complete list, but it’s an indication of how many students were working under you.
Lerner: I didn’t, could I have that?
Teicher: You sure could.
Teicher: I got that from you, and I have a “keep” sign on it, so you must have said I could keep it.
Lerner: What is it, two, let’s see, MA. Twelve, fifteen, nineteen, twenty-one, twenty-four, twenty-six, 00:57:00 twenty-nine, thirty-one MAs. And now that’s not right. That doesn’t mean, that means that the students were working on MAs.
Teicher: Oh, okay.
Lerner: That doesn’t mean each of them, it takes a couple of years.
Teicher: A couple of years. All right.
Lerner: I only directed seven dissertations. Anyway, the department, I think, in the course of the ten years that I was there certainly changed its position and overwhelmingly supported the MA program. And while I had a number of difficulties in the beginning with specific people in American history making all kinds of, I think, frivolous charges against the department, against me and against the way I was running it, none of these things were substantial and did not result in any negative things. They were just unpleasantnesses. And while I am less than enchanted with the way the department fulfilled its staffing obligations, I think that’s scandalous, what was done, the department, by the time I left, the overwhelming majority of the department would agree that the program was one of the most important aspects of the work of the department, that we had the best students and that it must continue. So, that’s very good.
More important is that the model that we started was repeated all over the country. And that at the time that I gave this with Kitty [Kathryn Kish] Sklar (b. 1939), where we gave that conference, 86.
Teicher: Eighty-seven, I think it was.
Lerner: Eighty-seven, there were—
Teicher: Eighty-eight. You served as codirectors of a conference on improving graduate training in US women.
Teicher: There were sixty-three scholars from fifty-five institutions.
Lerner: Right. Giving graduate degrees. So we had come a long way in a short time.
Teicher: Did people come to you from other institutions and say, “How did you do it?”
Lerner: Well, I was invited as a consultant to many places. I was invited by the president of Princeton prior to the establishment of their women’s studies department. I was at Claremont 01:00:00 College. I was invited at Harvard. I was invited, oh, many places, I don’t even keep track of them, to consult on how to set up such programs. That’s the way it was done. I would speak to the president, I would speak to the deans, I would speak to the history department chairs.
Teicher: How did it feel? You know, you started this program all by yourself. And you go to the AHA and the OHA. And all of a sudden you start meeting these heads of all these other women’s history programs.
Lerner: I’m not very impressed by status.
Teicher: (laughs) Well, that’s a remarkable accomplishment, I’ll tell you.
Lerner: No, I’m not. I do, I’m very pleased at what happened at Princeton because it was the last place on earth that I would have expected that to happen. When I was called there, ostensibly I was giving a lecture. You know, I was invited. Then they invited me. And the president gave a luncheon where all the chairs of the L&S had come and we had a really major discussion on should Princeton establish women’s studies. And I used an argument there that I’ve used since with other places, where he said, “Well, why should we, we have been through so many things ever since the 60s. Demands from below and political issues. And how do we know this is not a passing fad?” So I said to him—
Teicher: You said to him it’s 1947.
Lerner: And you’re at Princeton. And you don’t teach nuclear physics. And you’re trying to call in a consultant to tell you what to do about nuclear physics. And I can only tell you that if you’re Princeton and you want to be competitive in nuclear physics, you set up the best department in nuclear physics that you can. And that will require you to spend some money.
At which point the president interrupted me and said, “Unfortunately, while our endowment is great,” blah, blah, blah, “we’re in this terrible situation this year.”
I said, “Well, my advice to you is do nothing.” (laughs)
And he said, “You’re not serious.”
I said, “Certainly. You don’t want to set up a nuclear physics department that’s like fifth rate, do you?”
He said, “Why don’t you go on?” (laughter)
And then I said, “This means that you’re going to have to spend some money and you’re going to have to take it seriously. And you’re going to have to build. You’re not starting, this is not something that you do for one year or two years. You have to do this because this is a major thing that’s happened. And that it’s not going backwards; it’s going forwards. And you have to have at least two senior, tenured professors in charge of it. And you have to have four people on a tenure line, FTE, to start it.” And I went on. I gave him the structure and everything else. And we had this discussion. And they did it! It’s just what they did.
Teicher: (laughs) Did they build a good program?
Lerner: Very good.
Teicher: That’s amazing.
Lerner: Yeah. Yeah. I’m sure they had other people’s advice. But I’m saying, I did. My position always was, and I would say that to whoever I speak to, whether it’s an undergraduate or a college president or a board of trustees, that women’s history is here to stay. That it’s the most important intellectual revolution of the twentieth century. That if you don’t understand that if half the world’s population is rediscovering its history and redefining its past, that you have to be in there and train people to do it responsibly and with good scholarship. That’s always been my position. And it’s carried a lot of weight.
Teicher: Yeah. Right.
Lerner: Because nobody else puts it quite that extremely. Because I believe that. I really believe that. I’ve believed that from the day one, when there was nothing. I’ve always believed that. And I think that’s my contribution. 00:03:00 I was right about it. And that’s why I think a lot of people listen to me, because I talk to them, you know, sort of bottom line. You’re not doing this to please unruly students that are clamoring for female presence. I said, that’s no reason to do it. Women have been studying for a hundred years at universities from men. They can learn from men. They shouldn’t. It’s a crime. But they shouldn’t be excluded. But the fact is that that’s not the reason to do it. You’ve got to do it because this is intellectually the most important thing that has happened in the field of liberal arts. That’s all. And it’s redefining. See, the fact that it is redefining the content of history. I wrote and published in 1969, I believe, 1967, my first essay I spoke about it. Right? Nobody was talking in those terms then. They didn’t know what it was, you know. So I think that’s what I’ve done. And I’ve always taken the same position, regardless at what level of the academic establishment I talk to them. You know. Sometimes it doesn’t take at all.
Teicher: Was it harder at first, like when you came to Wisconsin, trying to explain something that really wasn’t out there yet?
Lerner: No, it was harder before then. At first, the 70s and 80s was very hard. Yeah. That was very hard. Because they all would hold up, you know, at that time, Black history wasn’t yet even established respectably. And the Ivy Leagues were still ignoring it, right? And here I come and I say this is for the best. Only the best is good enough. I mean, that was always my position. If you want to be in women’s history, you’ve got to be better than anybody else.
Teicher: What about women’s studies? You had a background in a parallel—
Lerner: Yeah, well, women’s studies. I’m a pioneer in women’s studies. As I said, I’ve been instrumental in helping establish it in a number of places. Convincing people, speaking about it. But I have never, I myself with my limited time. I mean, I mentioned to you that I set about to change the way history treats women. And I analyzed that this would only be done if it was done from within a history department. From within history. Couldn’t be done by creating a new thing. I don’t know if I’m making myself clear. Women’s studies was a new 00:06:00 interdisciplinary field. Very important field. I’m supportive of it. I want women’s history to transform the history men and women are taught in every history department. And I’ve succeeded in that.
Teicher: One of the other things you did, or I’ve read about in your writings and talked to other people about is you had a very active outreach program going.
Teicher: In which you aimed at other groups. You aimed it at elementary school students and middle school students, adults. Could you talk about that just a little bit?
Lerner: Well, but that I started at Sarah Lawrence.
Teicher: Mm hmm. Right.
Lerner: I got a Rockefeller grant to start the Women’s Studies Department at Sarah Lawrence. At that time, the new president of Sarah Lawrence who came from IBM [Charles DeCarlo (1921-2004)] had set as his goal to increase the percentage of enrollment of men in Sarah Lawrence College. That was his main claim to fame. And to do this, he was going to build a swimming pool and sports facilities at a women’s college. And he came in the year after I came in. And we were on a collision course from day one.
Teicher: I’ll bet. (laughter)
Lerner: He gave me a, he gave me a beautiful hand-tooled leather briefcase when I left Sarah Lawrence. And I accepted it and I said, well, that’s what loyal service will get you anytime. (laughs) Well, anyway, where was I?
Teicher: Outreach. We were talking about outreach here.
Lerner: Sarah Lawrence is an unusual institution. And they innovated about twenty or thirty years before I came there a program for, a transition program for women who had interrupted their education in order to have families and who were returning. We call them sometimes retreads or sometimes returnees. Center for Continuing Education. Very innovative thing, which proved to be a model for many, many other institutions and similar centers. And these women were often women of extraordinary accomplishment who had a self-confidence like this, nothing. 00:09:00 And who felt they weren’t ready to take on undergraduate work. They needed a year of transition.
Well, the Sarah Lawrence faculty by and large was not very positive about these people. Except always one or two professors who liked to work with them. But they others didn’t want them in their classes and so on. They wanted them to be taught separately. They were like an inferior group. Well I thought, I was their age. I was a retread, right?
Teicher: Mm hmm. Right. (laughs)
Lerner: I entered college, I entered university at the age of forty-three. So I was right there with them. So I always invited a few of them to join my classes. You know? And of course they were a resource that you can’t beat. I mean, some of them had been leaders in their community’s cultural life, organizational life. They were directors of the music center and what not. And when you ask them what did you do, “Oh, nothing. I was just a housewife.” You know? (laughter)
So I had this dream thing in mind when I talked to the Rockefeller Foundation people in 69, 70. I wanted to give a course which I called, which I wanted to call Women Organizing Women. And I wanted to take a seminar in which a third were undergraduate Sarah Lawrence students, a third were women from the Center for Continuing Education and a third were community activist leaders that I would pick.
Lerner: And the foundation would pay for those, that third, their tuition.
Teicher: The third third. Yeah.
Lerner: And we would study the history of women’s organizations. Well, the Rockefeller Foundation gave me the money to do this for three years. It was part of the grant. And it was like the Robinson-Edwards Chair. The college, in order to accept the whole grant, they had to accept this. So they did. And they figured they were going to sabotage it.
So the first thing I know, I’m hauled before the faculty meeting. “You can’t call this Women Organizing Women. That’s not academic. We’re a high-level liberal arts college. We don’t teach organizing.”
So we had some heated words. And then I said, “Okay. We’ll call it Women in Community Organizations.”
“Oh, that’s okay.” 00:12:00 Nobody ever called it that. It was always called as Women Organizing Women. But in the written thing, it was Women in Community Organizations. It’s very long. Well, that course was dynamite. I mean, it was just wonderful. It was a wonderful course. And of course in a small college, there’s a buzz about this.
Teicher: Right. Of course.
Lerner: And then I did very shortly after, I got a big outside grant from the Lilly Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, to run an intensive summer seminar for high school teachers on women’s history. And then I ran that famous seminar in 1976, I think, on, well we got the money from, it was cosponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, the Lilly Foundation, Sarah Lawrence College and Women’s Action Alliance, which was a coalition of one hundred women’s organizations nationally. And it was to take one or two women from each women’s organization for a twenty-one-day intensive residential seminar. Teach them women’s history. And I had, and we specified that they had to be either the president or the educational director of the organization. Or the vice president. I didn’t want to fool around. And that thing just changed the world. Because that was the seminar where, as their class project, they took the nationalizing of Women’s History Week.
Teicher: That’s where we got, that’s Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Carter—
Lerner: That’s where we got that from. Jimmy Carter signed it.
Teicher: Signed it, yeah.
Lerner: Has my name on it in the presidential proclamation. So I had done a lot of outreach by the time I came here. I ran a number of other conferences at Sarah Lawrence that were out in the community. And what we tried to do is bring the academic work into direct connection with community activity. And so I felt, and I feel that, that it’s essentially that’s the Wisconsin idea.
Lerner: I didn’t know about that until after I’d been here. But that’s what we were doing.
Teicher: (laughs) So you were doing the Wisconsin idea at Sarah Lawrence.
Lerner: Yeah. So I started right when I came here the first year. I noticed that nobody was celebrating Women’s History Day, even. In Madison. 00:15:00 Didn’t exist. So the first group of students, I said to them, “We’re not going to just be doing theory. You’ve got to do some practice. And I want every one of you to volunteer some time and we will do something for Women’s History Week. On campus or whatever.”
Inside of two years, this became a huge outreach operation. And I managed to convince the department to let me start a practicum course for which they got credit. Don’t ask. (Teicher laughs) I got it. I don’t know. It’s one of those things.
Teicher: So what were the types of things they might do in that practicum?
Lerner: Well, here’s what they did. First of all, one group of three was in charge of bringing speakers from out of town on a women’s history topic. And getting money from the university and writing the grants and hiring the hall and doing the whole thing. So it was a very practical thing which I put into their files which helped them get jobs later.
Teicher: That’s right.
Lerner: It was a very practical thing.
Teicher: Essentially a speakers’ bureau.
Lerner: That was one group. Another group was to work with the student organizations on campus to get them to do something, and to give student money to the things we were doing that service students. And then we got various teams and we actually made four slideshows. One was on women and sports. One was on women’s suffrage, the history of women’s suffrage. One was on the history of Wisconsin women. I’m trying to think what the fourth one was. I think it was women at work, okay? And then once we had those slideshows made, then each year we had one group of people who made contacts with libraries, schools, offering to do those slideshows to their venue. And we had twenty-two to thirty performances in various places where our students went and they did the slideshow and they talked to the students and the teachers and so on. That collapsed, or got smaller and smaller. But by now, all of Madison celebrates Women’s History Week. And the US—
Teicher: So it served its purpose.
Lerner: Yeah. It served its purpose.
Teicher: It initiated things.
Lerner: Yeah. Yeah. It did. And the students who did it, and who got credit for the practicum, it helped enormously in their careers. Because obviously 00:18:00 if you look at a person that’s written a good dissertation, you know, and then you see that person can write a grant. That person has run meetings. That person has interviewed speakers and knows how to put on a performance of some sort, that’s an asset.
Teicher: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about your students and jobs. Now you had a, talk a little about your students and the types of placement, the jobs they were able to find.
Lerner: I’m going to get something to drink.
Teicher: Hold on. [pause] Okay, we’re going to switch course a little bit. We just had a discussion off tape. We’re going to talk a little bit about the department and the impact of the program on the department. Perhaps we could start there.
Lerner: Mm hmm. Well, there’s first of all the impact that the students had. The fact that they were very good students and very dedicated and very active students. They were, professors really wanted them as their PAs. And they would bring women’s history into the sections that they taught. And sometimes professors became interested in some of the topics. And it’s really the students who helped to transform some of the reading lists. I myself don’t feel, I feel, while, I feel very proud of what we accomplished, I don’t think we accomplished, in my knowledge, in my own personal experience, an intellectual conversion of many of our male colleagues to taking women’s history seriously enough for them to become very knowledgeable about it. Some few did.
Lerner: Some few really changed their approach to it and included women in their courses and included topics pertaining to women and were open to scholarship on women. A few other people would use one in the syllabus, there would be one book written by a women’s history person, or one article. But that’s understandable. It’s difficult to keep up with a rapidly changing field.
A few of the innovations, organizational innovations that I introduced and practiced and that women’s, graduate program women’s history practiced, were very influential. One was that the department decided, I think 00:21:00 a year or two before I left—oh, what is this? [pause] A year or two before I left that they would introduce a requirement of a master’s essay for every PhD student. And that was simply done.
We had from the beginning a practice established in the women’s history program that every student was assigned to one of the women’s history faculty. Which was usually one or two people, or three people. (Teicher laughs) And that the student could stay with that person as her mentor. If the student wanted to change, that was up to her. But we had the responsibility to keep them. So our students were mentored from the day that they come into the department. This was something I just imposed. And we imposed upon ourselves. Which added to our work, as always. But which was of great service to the students. And we were able to keep very close to the students. And again, I think it was when Ken[neth] Sacks was chairman, they adopted this mentoring idea for the whole program. They never made a reference saying that it was so successful in the women’s history program. But I know it had an impact on them.
And I guess the fact that they enacted a credit for a practicum program opened up for anybody in the department if they wanted to design a course, let’s say they wanted to design a course in oral history, they could get credit for it. So that was a change.
And then the most important thing was that we did something, well, how shall I say it, unofficially, that then became established simply by doing it. I’ve always been a great believer in making change by just doing it, rather than talking about it, having fights about it, enacting it. Just do it. When you’re stopped, you’ve got to have a fight. But start by doing it. (Teicher laughs) That’s always been my mode.
So we started to have a collective governance for the graduate program in women’s history. We first started by having meetings of our students and the faculty regularly. And discussing how things were going. And listening to the students as to what they wanted changed, and what their problems were and what their grievances were. Then the students voted to do an annual retreat, which they 00:24:00 organized, to which the faculty was invited for one day and then the student stayed by themselves another day.
Teicher: Oh. Interesting.
Lerner: And so we created the community of the graduate program in women’s history students. And we called it the community. And before long, and I was, I frankly was always worried about it. And that was one of the things where I learned from my colleagues, like Linda, who just thought this was the right way to go. And I said, well, there’s no institutional framework. And they said, well, let’s make it. Let’s do it. So, we did it. And what it did was it gave these graduate students an unusual sense of community. And every single one of them has since, now that they have wonderful careers, has always when you ask them, they say what was the best thing about the program, it was the community.
Well, they met with each other. They became very close, lifelong friends. To this day, six or seven of these students are intimate close friends of mine, as are a dozen of my Sarah Lawrence students. Or more. They were able to deal with problems that they had. With us, with the faculty, with the system, with the department, in an open way. And we would listen to them.
And for example, there was a big flap when one year the lesbian students decided that women’s history celebrations that year would deal with lesbian history. And this was done in the semester when I was absent. And I wasn’t consulted. And I was worried about it, about doing it entirely on that subject. I said, let’s just do it as an aspect. Don’t do it all at once. Because this was a year we had an appointment to make. We had a struggle about getting an FTE.
Teicher: You don’t need to throw that into the mix.
Lerner: I was worried about it. I was playing the conservative. Well, they hauled me over the coals but good. (Teicher laughs) And they did it. And it was fine. They had t-shirts made, purple t-shirts. Women’s History Month. And all the straight students were wearing the lesbian t-shirts. And so on. I mean, I’m citing that because that was something where they were right, I was wrong. I wasn’t opposed to it; I just didn’t want it all at once. 00:27:00 And they said the only way to do it is all at once. Okay.
They decided another time that we needed to change our required courses to include a course on African American women. And they went so far as to persuade me to teach it, which took a lot of persuasion, because I’ve stayed away from—although I helped to create that field, I have not taught it for a long time. That’s another subject. And they convinced me that I should teach it. And it’s not a requirement. Anybody in this, that gets a degree here, has to take one graduate level course in a different culture or race. And that was initiated by our students. So, student government actually worked in a very positive way.
Then the students began to clamor for the fact that hiring decisions are made and they have no input. Well the department, of course, allows for students to interview candidates. They always did that.
Teicher: Mm hmm. Right.
Lerner: And then the students were supposed to send to the search committee their recommendation. The students said, well, we’d like to be on the search committee. And we’d like to be on all the committees. And that was a big fight.
Teicher: I’ll bet it was.
Lerner: And we got it. Well, what happened then is really ironic. Women students in the history department were very jealous. And the male students, even worse. And they said how come these people in women’s history get all these advantages and we don’t? And they said, we want to come into this community. And so, all of a sudden from twenty students in the community, we had meetings with sixty people.
Teicher: Oh, my goodness.
Lerner: And I thought that it was appalling. Who were not studying women’s history. And that was one of the areas where I had conflict with the student. Because I felt we were spreading ourselves too thin. We were leaving ourselves open to resentment by the faculty that we were trying to influence their students away from them. All that stuff. But it wasn’t like that. What really happened is the students themselves, a person comes here to study diplomatic history or political history and attends a few of our meetings and says hey, I’d like to take a course in women’s history. And the next thing we know, they’re coming to us, will we supervise their essay? 00:30:00
Well, finally, the women’s history community set up a two-tier system. Once a month they had a meeting of the whole community. Anybody can come. And once a month, only the people in women’s history. And that’s how it is to this day. I don’t know how it’s been going. But that was a transformation.
Lerner: It was a real impact on the department.
Teicher: Was the word “community,” was that something that you had a strong sense of from the beginning?
Lerner: Very strong sense. I believed in that. I believe that we do not separate our brain from our activity. I don’t believe that I can teach you or anybody just by teaching you intellectually. [pause]
Teicher: You have to affect the feelings as well as the intellect.
Lerner: Feelings and behavior and action. And if I can’t do that, whatever I teach you intellectually will not last. And I have believed that forever. I believe that. And I have practiced that in all my teaching. Whether it’s institutionally manifest or not, that’s how I teach.
Teicher: Is that what these students from outside of women’s studies who wanted to get into this were telling you? That they wanted a sense of community, they wanted to join this, the sense of community, not the community.
Lerner: They wanted to be in a community, yes. And they were very jealous of our mentoring. This is why the department had to respond to it. And they were feeling well why don’t we have part of the governance, like they do? And so on. So now they do. So now the students sit on every committee. We have student representatives on hiring committees.
Teicher: What about men? Male students.
Lerner: Men, yeah.
Teicher: How involved have they become over the years in women’s studies?
Lerner: Well, some have. I mean I have had about six students who took minors in, male students who took minors in women’s history. And all of them teach it now.
Teicher: Hmm. Interesting.
Lerner: See for men, it’s a great asset 00:33:00 to have a minor in women’s history. Because at places where they can’t hire two people, they’re delighted to have a man who can teach American traditional and can teach women’s history. So it’s proven to be a very, very good specialty for them. I don’t know. I mean, I haven’t kept that close. Since I’ve retired, I’ve stayed out totally, out of all departmental stuff. And all women’s history stuff. I, you know, I’m too strong a personality to be involved peripherally. I’m not peripherally involved when I’m involved.
Teicher: You’re not a peripheral person. (laughs)
Lerner: Yeah. And it was clearly the wish of everybody that the transition should be, the new people are in charge. And that’s how it’s been. So, I have stayed away. But I know, you know, I keep informed. I know a few things. And the women’s history community has continued.
And one of the things that I started, which then Linda Gordon did a lot of that, too. And now it’s institutionalized. I used to prepare, I used to run preparation groups for the orals. And I used to run, I used to encourage the students to form dissertator groups. Three or four students. To work with each other. And that’s become a tradition. Everybody does that in our program. Well, that’s a lot of support for students. Students need that.
Teicher: Mm hmm. It certainly is. Yeah.
Lerner: Then we run, Linda started that we run for the students when they have passed their orals and they go on the job market, we urge them to prepare a job talk. And we have the whole community listen to it and critique it and help them improve the job talk. And then they give it again. And by the time they get to give the job talk, they really know what they’re talking about. And we do that. I mean, that’s, we had the concept that our—and the same thing with teaching. We urge the students to get together and discuss the way they teach. And if possible, as long as I was there, I always was running one or another such group to help them prepare for the orals, for the dissertation, for the job talk. And our students have had an unusual record of publishing articles in journals before they get their PhDs. Well, that’s the same thing. If a student has an article that she wants to send in, we will get the community to get together. Read the article. Discuss it. Help her. Give criticism. So they come out of it with a much great sense of autonomy 00:36:00 and competence. They’re more competent.
Teicher: And, perhaps, with a job, too. The job placement has been pretty good, hasn’t it?
Lerner: It hasn’t just been pretty good.
Teicher: Okay. (laughs)
Lerner: It has been sensational. Nothing short of sensational. Nobody expected it. In the worst year, when in the whole country 40% of all historians couldn’t find jobs, every single graduate of our program got a good job.
Teicher: Oh, my.
Lerner: Except one who is, where her husband is employed and she has a small child and she couldn’t move. So she couldn’t get a job.
Teicher: Were most of those jobs teaching women’s history? Or were they within traditional history departments?
Lerner: No, whatever. But they all teach women’s history as part—
Teicher: As part of it. Right.
Lerner: So they might be teaching three courses. I mean, they might teach the survey and a specialty course and a women’s history course once a year. That’s the minimum. And some of them directly. Yeah. Now the students have done very well. The students that we have who got MAs only, four or five have become librarians. And one is with the Smithsonian and one is with Smith College. And a few others are other places. But really, very well. Our students, the ones that I taught, that I remember, well, I’ll give you the institutions. One went to Princeton. She left Princeton for Temple University and finally ended up at Penn, where she’s very happy. One is at Iowa. One is at Urbana in Illinois.
Teicher: Champaign-Urbana, yeah.
Lerner: Yeah, Champaign-Urbana. One is at William and Mary. One is at Columbia. One is at NYU.
Teicher: That’s mpressive. (laughs) That says a lot right there.
Lerner: One is at Franklin and Marshall. One was at the University of Arizona. She’s moved since then. One is a chair professor at the University of Oklahoma. I don’t remember them all. One is, one or two are in a state university of Illinois. 00:39:00 I’m leaving out some very good ones.
Teicher: I get the picture.
Lerner: You get the idea.
Teicher: I get the idea.
Lerner: They have all gotten tenure-leading jobs. And many of them have tenure already. And the publication record is sensational. I mean, really sensational.
So, I’ll tell you about one that is really, she came the second year that I started the course. And she was a nun from the Sisters of Saint Francis of Perpetual Adoration in the city of Milwaukee. And with an MA. She had been a teacher at Cardinal Stritch College. And she was a person who had considerable difficulty meeting the requirements, especially in terms of the level of writing. But she did a fascinating dissertation on the institution-building of Catholic sisters in the state of Wisconsin. And her order paid for her tuition.
Teicher: Really? Interesting.
Lerner: And while she was here, at her insistence, her order sent her to the International Women’s Congresses in China and in Africa. And when she graduated from here, she went back to teaching at Cardinal Stritch College, and the next year was made chairman of her department. And after that, she organized a world congress of women religious who are doing the histories of their orders. And I was the keynote speaker at that congress. And they had 250 nuns from all over the world. It was wonderful. And that organization has now had its third international congress already. It’s well established. And Sister Francis [Florence] Deacon was just written up as being an activist in a world’s human rights organization of the United Nations. I mean—
Teicher: That’s very impressive. Yes.
Lerner: You know. You can’t do much more outreach than this woman did. And when she came here, she was not a leader. She became a real leader. And I think many of our students have become real leaders in their field and their institutions.
Teicher: Is that because of that sense of community?
Lerner: I think so. I think so. We meet every year at the AHA or OAH. 00:42:00 Or at the Berks we have a meeting of our group and people show up. It’s been quite a—and they will talk about that it transformed them. That it was a transforming experience.
Teicher: In what sense? How do they mean the word transform?
Lerner: Transformed consciousness, and transformed their lives because of it. So, I think we’ve proven, I mean, I feel I have proven my assertion. That number one, there’s a market for this degree. Number two, that the best minds of the young people will go into it. That they can succeed in the world with it, in one form or another. One of our students taught at Wellington, New Zealand. University of Wellington. One of our students who was not the most brilliant in the program, but a good student, got a job and she has tenure in a community college in the University of Colorado. And she’s doing a great job. I mean, down the line they have made—and I’ve talked to their colleagues. Some of them have invited me to speak at their universities and I get to talk to their colleagues and their department chairs. And they’re all ecstatic about them. So I feel we’ve done a good job.
Teicher: Well, you were the first generation of women’s studies proponents. Now you have your students, who are more or less the second generation. What is the next generation going to bring? Where does women’s studies–
Lerner: Are you talking women’s studies now?
Teicher: I’m sorry. My tongue. Women’s history.
Lerner: I’m asking you a question there. Why is it so difficult to make that distinction?
Teicher: I don’t know. I don’t know.
Lerner: You’re not the only one. It’s constantly—
Teicher: I don’t know. It just comes out and I don’t, yeah.
Lerner: Yeah. We have proven. I mean, if you look at the historical profession, the journals, the scholarly publication, in thirty years we have proven not only that women’s history is a valid specialty, but that the study of the activities of women of the past is an integral part of the study of history. And I believe we have been the 00:45:00 what do you call that? What do you call the agent that transforms something?
Teicher: Transforming agent. (laughs)
Lerner: No. I mean, if you introduce something into a mixture that changes it. We have been that agent that makes, wants to introduce women’s history into the study of history at all levels. You not only open up the study of history, but you raise new questions that were never asked before and that shift the emphasis in history. So there’s a kind of a dynamic in this which has occurred, which many people deplore. In the so-called culture wars of the last few years, the traditionalists all can give you a long list of these shifts and changes that have occurred, which they all consider trivial. Which I consider to be the beginnings of the way history and culture will be taught in the future. We’re just at the beginning of it. Just like the introduction of Black history into American history, which took fifty years of struggle to accomplish. Wasn’t just additive. At a certain level, when you want to begin to really integrate Black history into American history, you have to change American history. You have to change the questions you ask, the materials you select, the scope of your inquiry, everything.
Now, traditionalists think the world has come to an end and the barbarians have entered the gates. And that’s why they really hate us, so many of them. We have several leaders of this movement in our department. I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s exactly what Darwinian science did in the nineteenth century. That is, once you have Darwinian science established, science is not the same anymore.
Teicher: Yeah, that’s right.
Lerner: It’s the same thing here. You can’t tell the history of half the world the same way as you tell the history of the whole world. And we have done that. Some people don’t recognize it yet. Some people just see the disturbing parts of it. Some people see the negative aspects that have happened. The excesses. 00:48:00 All those things. But in effect, it’s irreversible. It’s like I made the comparison to nuclear science. I mean, the nucleus has been split. The atom has been split. There’s no way that you can undo this. And I think this is wonderful. This is very exciting to be part of this, to have worked on this. You know? Very energizing. And intellectually, it’s the most interesting thing around as far as I can see. I have never understood the people who don’t even bother to understand what’s going on. I don’t understand that. Who have no intellectual curiosity except to repeat the paradigm into which they were trained. We’ve shattered that paradigm.
I’ve been sort of a, I have to use that word, a point man in that process. And a lot of times I was upfront there, taking it. But I believe we are, you know, this is a major movement. This is the major movement of the twentieth century, intellectually.
Teicher: Well, I believe the right point person, point man, has been chosen. Linda Gordon described you as fearless.
Teicher: And certainly that’s something that was put to the test over the years. I promised I was only going to take up two hours of your time. I’ve already run over a little bit.
Lerner: Oh, that’s okay.
Teicher: So I think we’ll stop today—
Lerner: Yeah. Okay.
Teicher: –and pick up on Wednesday. 00:49:56
Teicher: This is Barry Teicher of the oral history project. I’m in the home of Gerda Lerner, where we’re going to continue the interview that we began last Saturday. There were a few things that we talked about after the session last time that we thought we’d just wrap up today. And one of them was the student support and the impact it had on the history department. Do you want to talk about that?
Lerner: Yeah. I mentioned that the students had an impact on the history department in terms of being, I brought, I mean very good students came to this program. And so they became very much sought after as PAs and teaching assistants. And when they would be teaching assistants in a course, they would add to the bibliography and to the material to bring women’s history into the course. And so in an indirect way, they had a lot of impact on that. And very often, they actually convinced their teachers to change the bibliography.
Teicher: Oh, really?
Lerner: Yeah. But in another matter, then I mentioned that we created what was known as the women’s history community.
Lerner: And that that had an impact on the other students that were outside of our group and that wanted to get into it. But in another area, we had an impact. Two other areas. I think I did mention before that I had insisted that every master’s student has to have a master’s essay.
Lerner: And then late in the 80s, the department voted to make that a general rule for the department. For all PhD students, that they had to have a master’s essay. And finally, the mentoring. Now this was something that I introduced from the start. That each of our students have a mentor. Excuse me, have I said this before?
Teicher: You mentioned a little bit about the mentor.
Lerner: Right. And that then the department voted to have that, too. For all the students. Now of course, it didn’t work that well for them. (coughing) Turn this off. [pause] The women’s history faculty took this mentoring very seriously from the beginning. And we had, you know, we would really keep a close watch on our students and meet with them regularly just to discuss general problems of the students. And we made ourselves available to that. 00:03:00 So each of our students had a faculty mentor throughout the time that they were here.
When the department voted to do the same thing, they never directly referred to us as an example, but they just did it, different faculty took to it very well and others did not at all. And so since it’s a much larger group of students that they serve, I don’t know that it has worked as well. But at least it was a structural change.
And then finally the matter of, that I really wanted to talk about a little more, the matter of student support. When I came into the department, the department had no fellowship for a student assigned to the history department. And what we had, the only thing we had was a pool of, we could apply for L&S fellowships that were L&S-wide. So we would be competing against English department and anthropology and sociology and everybody.
Teicher: Right. The entire spectrum of L&S. Right.
Lerner: And those fellowships were few and far between. And usually the history department used to be really pleased if they got one a year. But my students started immediately getting one and some years two of these fellowships. And then we had, the only other support were some small fellowships that were university-wide, again that you had to apply.
And there was absolutely no culture in the department that the faculty had any responsibility toward supporting the students, other than that we had a TA contract that we filled. As you know, all our TAs unionized and have a very nice contract–
Lerner: –that worked very well for the department, despite the fact that most of the faculty fought it tooth and nail when the students did try to unionize at the beginning. But then it worked very well.
Well now, when I came in, I immediately took as my job to support students. And I think I mentioned before, just in passing, that I supported them by getting the university to give me some money for my chair so I could have a PA.
Lerner: And that, of course, professors have done before, the chaired professors get PAs. But that’s a job. The student works for that. It’s not support.
Teicher: Mm hmm. Right. Yeah. 00:06:00
Lerner: And then I tried right away from the beginning to think up projects from the outside, where I would get a grant to do the project and put on a student. So I supported one student for three years with a bibliography. I supported, I think I mentioned that, with the oral history project, I got grants from outside and I supported three students for three years on that project. And then when we did this women’s history week activity, we got grants. And when we did these slideshows, we got little grants so that the students got a few hundred dollars doing these slideshows.
Teicher: Speaker’s bureau type things. Yeah, right.
Lerner: Speaking bureau and all that. In other words, I adopted the policy that whatever the students do out in the world, they are professionals and they should get paid for it. And I’m trying to think. I think I had one or two other outside grants, but I simply cannot think of them now. Oh, yes. We helped in later years in getting a grant from the Ford Foundation for incorporating the history of Black women into the curriculum. And that helped to support some students, too. And then we established with women’s studies that our students were hired as TAs. So this meant a lot of over work, of course, for the women’s history faculty.
Teicher: Yes. Grants are terribly time-consuming, yes.
Lerner: You know, we had to write the grants. I had to administer the grants. And if you’ve ever done grant writing, you know it’s a labor-intensive job.
Teicher: Yes, it is.
Lerner: And the point was, that I never discussed this with the department. It didn’t occur to me to discuss it until it was well established. And then when Ken Sacks was chair of the department. He was a very progressive chair. And he was also a good friend of mine. And he knew what I was doing. And he talked to me about it. He said, “How come you’re doing all these things?” And I explained that I thought it was unconscionable that we didn’t seem to care what our students’ lives were like, and that they had no support. And that I wish other people 00:09:00 would do that. And I encouraged, for example, when Linda Gordon got her chair, and when Jeanne Boydston came in, I encouraged them right away to be sure and apply for a PAship so they could take care of one of our students. And we did that. Now other people do that, too, but they do that because they wanted to get the help from the PA. But we used PAships, you see.
Well, Ken Sacks, and by that time, I had endowed a fellowship.
Teicher: Mm hmm. Right.
Lerner: The Gerda Lerner Fellowship. That is, I made a large donation to the university. I mean, for my money, it was large. It wasn’t large from the WARF position.
Teicher: Right. (laughs)
Lerner: But I’m not a major donor. I’ve been in the nickels and dimes business, and I guess my donation is accordingly, too. But I made this donation and I have been adding to it over the years. And I wrote it in a way that was a little different from what the other people or what the WARF usually does. The usual, I mean, WARF’s position is extremely fiscally conservative, which you would want them to be. But between conservative and dead, there is a lot of difference. (laughter) And I mean, they will give you, whatever money you give them, they will invest in such a way that in a good market, it gets 11 or 12 %. This is at a time when private investors were getting 18 or 20%, okay?
Lerner: All right. And then they will give you only half of that to spend. I mean, in other words, the idea is that you’re supposed to, you give a donation. And the idea, the concept is that the earnings from the donation will support whatever it is you want to support. The capital will accrue, right?
Lerner: Okay. Well, if you don’t give a million dollars, but below that, your earnings don’t buy you very much, right? And the general policy of WARF is that, to let the money sit there until it has accumulated enough that the half of the interest that they give you back will support whatever it is you want. Well I figured out it would take like twenty years before I could support a student. And I decided I wasn’t going to do that. That’s ridiculous.
And so I 00:12:00 wrote into my grant that they would allow me to go into the capital for a period, and we figured out it was like six or eight years, and we would be able to give the fellowships. And that was like pulling teeth.
Teicher: I didn’t even know they allowed those things to—
Lerner: Well, it’s all negotiable. I mean—
Teicher: Yeah, right. I mean, if that’s a term of—
Lerner: If they don’t want it, they don’t want my money, that’s all.
Teicher: I’d never heard of that before.
Lerner: Oh, yeah. Everybody negotiates their gifts. That’s standard. That’s how people get buildings named after them, you know. They say well, you can have the money, but I want the building named after me. I mean. So, they broke their precedent. Right from the start.
So what we did then, we didn’t have enough money to support—well, we had another thing. We had a policy. And it’s written into my grant that because of the experience with the Robinson-Edwards Chair, which essentially is the single woman’s chair and is a poverty chair, you know, I wasn’t going to have a poverty fellowship for women. So they were supposed to get the same amount that you get paid in another fellowship. Now, there wasn’t enough capital to do that. So they, the foundation cooperated. And we also did some fundraising. And I went out to their hostings and gave some lectures. I went one time with George Mosse to the Jewish museum, to the Holocaust Museum, for a benefit for our Washington alums. And they managed to write this up splendidly in the Wisconsin University papers, mentioning only George Mosse and leaving me out.
This is what happens when a culture changes. It was so-called the usual innocent mistake. And I asked George whether he thought it was conceivable that the innocent mistake could have been made the other way. (laughs)
Teicher: What did he say?
Lerner: No way! I mean, you know. So they corrected it. I protested and they corrected it. But of course the story was out.
Lerner: But anyway, we increased. In other words, I worked on increasing the endowment together with WARF. And we also decided that if we didn’t have enough money, that we could give a half a fellowship. Like one-semester fellowship to a student. I mean, it’s better than nothing, 00:15:00 right?
Teicher: Yeah. Right. Half a loaf. Yeah.
Lerner: And in that way, we were able to support students right from the start. Well, that was already in place when Ken Sacks became chair. And he said, “This is wonderful, you know. We ought to get the rest of the faculty to do things like that.” And he was the first chair of the history department in my experience that I ever heard of who took fundraising as part of his job. And he started fundraising for the history department. And the whole idea of the Jewish chair came out of that.
Teicher: I didn’t realize that.
Lerner: Yeah. That’s how things happen. Individuals take pet projects and work very hard for them behind the scenes. And that’s what happened.
So the next thing we know now, all kinds of people are doing projects to get money for students. Which I’m really happy to see.
Teicher: Yeah, that’s great.
Lerner: And this was done exactly simply by example. I mean, I never discussed it with a single colleague except Ken Sacks. But, it was, you know, it was common knowledge and the student knew about it, of course. So, which brings me to the, yeah. I know, I forgot. I mentioned that before. The other project was the Knapp grant that I got.
Teicher: Right. Right. Right.
Lerner: Which supported three students for three years.
Teicher: That was a big one, right.
Lerner: So if you add that one up by the year, I supported three students. Three students for three years in the Knapp grant. For the eleven years I was there, I had one or two PAs at all times. So that’s eleven and nine, right? That’s twenty. And the bibliography grant, one student for three years is twenty-three. And the oral history project, three students for three years is twenty-three, thirty-two. And then I have to raise money to make the film, which supported the film project and the person making it, who was one of our former students.
Oh, and then there were two small grants I forgot. I know. See, now it’s coming to me. I got a grant to do the oral history of Kay [Kathryn F.] Clarenbach (1920-1994).
Teicher: Oh, yeah.
Lerner: And I had a student work on that for a year. And I got another grant for the sister who was a nun to interview other sisters in her order about their life history. That was a half a year. All right. So that’s a lot of people.
Teicher: That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of grants. That’s a lot of money.
Lerner: Yeah, that’s a lot of people. And I never thought of myself, I mean, this is something that sort of happened. 00:18:00 I never thought of myself as being interested in fundraising or money raising or anything like that. But I have been very strongly, I mean, I have been outraged by the academic culture which increases tuition year after year, and in which the full professoriate will get all kinds of perks in addition to their pretty good salaries. Who get research support, who get travel support to conventions. Who get vacations, research support if they write a letter to a committee. I mean, all of it is necessary and wonderful. But by and large the culture is it’s none of their job to concern themselves with how their students live.
One of my best students was night manager for McDonald’s. Fulltime night manager for McDonald’s. For a whole year. When I found that out is when I started on the fundraising.
Teicher: That’s interesting. Did students from other programs within the history department, did they start figuring out what was going on by talking to your students?
Lerner: I couldn’t tell you that. I imagine they did. But it isn’t something that’s required. In other words, this is entirely voluntary.
Teicher: Oh, certainly not.
Lerner: But I’m saying that, and right now this minute, I’m a member of the AHA Committee on Part Time Faculty. And we have an equally horrendous injustice going on right now in which in fact 51% of all faculty in the nation is part time, non-tenured.
Teicher: Oh, my.
Lerner: And these people are working at slave labor wages. And I’m saying slave labor advisedly. From $1500 per course to a high of four thousand dollars per course. And they get no office, no fringes, no computer, no insurance, no research support and no ladder that after so many years they’re eligible for a fulltime job. On the contrary, these people are an underclass. And if you’ve done this for three or four years, it’s almost impossible to get a tenure job.
Teicher: Right. Right. It’s a black hole.
Lerner: Yeah. And this is the academic tenured faculty’s responsibility. It’s of course the administrators who are doing it. But the academic faculty up to now has been by and large indifferent to this and participating. 00:21:00 Because it’s to their advantage. They don’t teach undergraduates. They don’t teach sections. But it’s a scandal. And so while I’m not active in anything else, I joined that committee.
Teicher: Well it truly is the flipside of what you’ve been talking about, the students.
Lerner: Yes, it is. It is. It is.
Teicher: And a lot of these students who have been getting, then finally get out in the field and they end up in this.
Lerner: Well you see, the accomplishment, if you measure the accomplishment of any graduate program, the accomplishment of the graduate program I set up lies in the fact that while our history department no longer is among the top ten, at the moment I think it’s eleventh, it was eighth or ninth ranking when I came here. I’m not sure about the latest ranking, but I know it’s gone down because we had so many retirements and people left. The majority of my students not only got tenure-leading jobs, but tenure-leading jobs in the top-ranking institutions. That is how you measure success. Okay.
Now, this is built, just like the shirt that you’re wearing and the blouse I’m wearing from China that we’re buying cheaply because people are working at below subsistence level wages. That is what has happened in the academy. And nobody has up till now paid much attention. Now it’s all over. This year’s Perspective has a big article on it and ten organizations are working on it and all that. But it’s been going on. And it’s a disgraceful situation. And to me, I certainly have benefited from my privileged position as being—I’m saying this now not immodestly. I mean, I’m considered a star here. I’ve been treated like a star. I’ve had wonderful support, as I told you. But I have not forgotten. I have not forgotten the people who don’t have it.
Teicher: Do you see that situation improving over time?
Lerner: No. I see it’s gotten worse. You know, the universities have become, they’re big corporations. And they have done, they’re doing essentially, they’re going the same route as the big corporation. They’re replacing decently paid labor, which has a stake in the, with tenure. I mean, the tenured professoriate is being replaced by temporaries. 00:24:00
Teicher: Yeah, they’re jobbing it out, sort of. To temps.
Lerner: They’re jobbing it out to temps. That’s right. And there’s a direct, if you curve it, as the temps’ employment has increased in proportion, the tenured positions have eroded in proportion. Because tenured faculty is not being replaced with tenured faculty. So, no, I think this is a real crisis. And it is very upsetting. I wasn’t going to talk about it.
Teicher: No, that’s okay. That’s certainly worth putting on the record.
Lerner: Now we have talked about the grants, the fellowship.
Teicher: Did you want to say any more about the oral history project?
Lerner: Yeah, I do. Well, the oral history project, I should say that as you know, I am a nineteenth century social historian, trained in the antebellum social history with a specialty in women’s history and a specialty in African American history in the antebellum period, right? Which is I don’t do the progressive era, and I don’t do twentieth century. And all my research has been essentially prior to 1860. You know, going way back to 1000 BC. But anyway, I have stayed very firmly prior to 1860. And I am very committed to that research interest. I think I chose it in the first place because I don’t like the twentieth century. I’m not comfortable in it. I’ve been victimized by it. My hopes for it are very low. And I don’t find it that interesting, in fact. And also, I’m very interested in largescale patterns. And contrary to what is now fashionable in history, I do believe that there are patterns. And I do believe that there are parallels, that there are comparable situations that occur at different time periods. And I’ve always been very interested in comparative history, and I’ve trained myself in it and my students.
So I’m saying that as a preface to the fact that I think I have to explain why I spend untold hours and at least six years 00:27:00 of my life on a twentieth century project in women’s history. Now, it came directly out of two things. One was that long before I became a historian I had a very active life as a community activist in various communities. And I really knew that by practice, that if you go in any community anywhere in the world and you want to make the slightest change, whether it’s to get a crossing signal or a street widening or a police patrol for the school, I mean, you name it, the way to get that done is to go to the busiest woman with the most children. And she will be the center of a network of women like her who run the community. That’s a fact. The working women don’t have time. The women who work outside their home don’t have time. The women who have few children very often don’t have the concern for the community as the women with a lot of children that are the mainstay of community structure. This I learned in practice.
And so when I came to Columbia as a graduate student at the age of forty-three, and I spent a year, the first year, with the professors whose books I greatly admired. And they presented me a world in the past in which women did not exist. At all! Well, I thought they were crazy. I thought they were really, there was something wrong with them. Not for one minute was I impressed with what they had to offer me. Because they didn’t ask the right question. And I came to the conclusion very quickly that they couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag, and that they couldn’t organize a PTA luncheon if they had to. Both of which I could do very well. And that if you don’t know the world as it functions, you can’t ask the right questions about the past. And this is what happened. They asked questions only about half the population and got answers that pretended they were talking about the whole population. And I came to that out of my own experience. And immediately, I didn’t wait a year. I began to ask those questions 00:30:00 in class and made a nuisance of myself.
And so I knew that women’s history mattered before there was official women’s history. Okay? And I also knew from studying the antebellum suffrage movement, women’s suffrage movement, that the history of women’s suffrage on which all of the written material is based, at the time that I entered historical studies as a graduate student, there were, I think four people in the whole country who—[break in tape]
Teicher: At the time, there were four people studying women’s history in the nation.
Lerner: Yeah, like doing an occasional article. There was a woman in Texas. I think her name was Anne Elizabeth Taylor. She was studying the Texas suffrage movement. Carl [Neumann] Degler (1921-2014) was including women in his historical research. Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) had done an article and a book about women. Bill [William] Chafe (b. 1942) had done something on women. And one other man. And then there was Eleanor Flexner (1908-1995), who was not a professional historian. And Anne Scott, Anne Firor Scott (1921-2019), who had done a book on Southern women. And then there was a woman named [Janet Wilson] James (1900-1999) who became the editor of Notable American Women, together with her husband and Paul Boyer (1935-2012). And she had written a dissertation on women that couldn’t be published. A very good dissertation.
But that was the field. I mean, there was no field. That’s what it was like. And if you looked at the books that had been written and the monographs, the articles on the nineteenth century suffrage movement, they were entirely based on the six-volume history of women’s suffrage assembled by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) and Matilda Gage (1826-1898). And that’s a very biased source. It leaves out half the suffrage movement. And it leaves out half the suffrage movement for the simple reason that there had been a split in the suffrage movement. At the time that these women were starting to write the history, they had already had fifteen years of a split in the movement. And they weren’t about to include the women that they had split with. And so these women were left out of history. And I was very struck with that. But I didn’t 00:33:00 see much what you could do about it. Because you know, it seemed to me that people had studied the primary sources pretty well.
Now, that was one part of what interested me about it. And one of my graduate students here at Wisconsin, I’m sorry, I’m blocking the name. Nancy [Isenberg], oh. Had worked on a dissertation with me on the origins of the Seneca Falls meeting, 1848. And she was interested in close textual analysis. But she was also very interested in where did these women come from. And she did a study, what we call a recruitment study, of all the women’s rights conventions before 1860 and before 1848 and followed these women to see where they came from. Nancy Isenberg. And her finding was a very brilliant dissertation, which has been published since. And she found that there were three major misconceptions about the Seneca Falls convention of 1848. One was that the women were inexperienced organizers and this was their first venture. Second, that most of them were influenced by the antislavery movement and by the rhetoric and the ideas of the Enlightenment. And so the American Revolution. And the third, that they, well, the third just in, whenever the 1848 convention was analyzed, it was analyzed in terms of the Declaration of Independence, on which it was based. And it was like put next to the second American revolution and all that.
And Nancy Isenberg showed, number one, that all the people that organized it were highly experienced organizers who had for at least five, and some of them fifteen years prior, been extremely active in feminist struggles within their churches. And that almost 90% of them were church women. Which is totally different. 00:36:00 And that their ideology came out of their religious struggles.
And I was satisfied that she proved this. And I think she did very well doing this. Well, now comes a second open historical question, which also conflicted with my experience. And that was, when the new women’s movement began to be established and conscious of its history, became conscious of its history, they began to write their own history. And one of the mainstays of their intellectual claim was that after, that in a sense that the second movement arose in the 1960s. And American traditional historians, male historians writing, insofar as they ever mentioned women’s suffrage, would write regularly that women got the vote and then really didn’t use it well. And that there was a kind of hiatus between 1920 and 1960. And Betty Friedan (1921-2006), with her book, started it all.
Well I have never, I mean, I never thought that that explanation was any good. Because I worked with these women. I mean, I was one of the women in the 50s that was active in a number of very major organizations. And I knew that the women were active. There was no hiatus. What are they talking about? That whole picture of the women of the 50s is a fantasy of these daughters that are rebelling against their mothers. (Teicher laughs) So I knew that. And when I began to teach women’s history, I always made a point of showing the continuity in a women’s movement from 1920 to 1960.
One of my former students at Sarah Lawrence did a master’s essay which me, which was published, in which she studied the state of Connecticut, where she was living. And she studied the suffrage. What happened in the elections between 1920 and 1926 in Connecticut. Where no women were elected to any office. And so the common wisdom was, the women weren’t active, they weren’t organized, they didn’t get elected. Well, she showed that in every election 00:39:00 dozens of women were candidates for office and were not chosen by their parties. When they were chosen, they weren’t funded by their parties. And when they presented themselves, the one or two that managed to enter a campaign were boycotted by the party system and lost. That’s very different from the women didn’t organize, okay? And that thing was also in my mind.
And so I directed another dissertation that Marie Laberge did here with me at Wisconsin. And she studied the women’s activities in the city of Milwaukee between 1945 and 1960. And she found an unbroken record of organizational activity, including Black and white women cooperating on issues. Okay? Well, I had no doubt that my analysis was correct. This was just a sample, but it was clear.
So this is the background to the fact that I met Kay Clarenbach here and we became very good friends. And when I began to talk to Kay at all about her life, I realized that she was like a national treasure. And I was totally appalled to find that she had not had a full oral history done. And I said whatever else I must have. She was at that time already elderly and ailing. I must get money to interview this woman. And largely because the student needed a job. I mean, I raised the money for this student to talk to her for twelve hours and to research her life.
And once we had that, it all fell into place. Because here’s what happened. Kay Clarenbach was, in fact, representative of a Midwestern group of women who, well, she was a woman my age. And she had been active incessantly since her college days in women’s organizations. At the time that NOW was founded, she was the chair of the National Commissions on the Status of Women. That is every state since President Kennedy, every state had a commission on the status of women 00:42:00 appointed by the governor. And these women were the heads of large women’s organizations. They were all mainstream, respectable women. And they were the only group in the country focusing on women. Kay Clarenbach was the chair of the national commission. Having been the chair of the Wisconsin commission. And when NOW got started, she was active, involved in the convention. At the founding convention of NOW, 65% of the women came from the Midwest. So there goes your, smash your theory of the women’s movement started with the radical young women on the east coast. When they founded the organization, they realized that Betty Friedan was a very dynamic writer and speaker, but she was a catastrophe as an organizer. And they elected Kay Clarenbach as the national organizer. And Kay Clarenbach brought into the organization the entire network of women who were heads of organizations all over the nation. And she brought them into the feminist movement.
Now this was exactly what had happened at Seneca Falls. And the wrong people were being given credit for creating the second women’s movement. And what you missed by, what you missed especially was that the modern women’s movement was not a movement, if you count the numbers, it was not a movement of women coming out of SDS and of middle class white women and of women under twenty-five in age. The majority of the women in the women’s movement were women in their thirties and forties with two to four children who had been active in the women’s movement for ten to fifteen to twenty years at the time that the modern women’s at the time that the modern women’s movement got started. And that, you see the parallel.
Well, when I saw that, I got really excited. Because that was my nineteenth century history parallel. And I decided this must be pursued. And I had a list. Now I also should say that I knew personally, I’m a founder of NOW. Okay? So I’m one of these women. But I would never have made it into the history, you see? And I knew personally some of the leaders of the modern women’s 00:45:00 movement who didn’t fit the young radicals description, who came from trade unions. And other organizations. I knew them personally. I knew their history. And I knew that they had been left out of the story.
So we made a list, Kay and I. Largely Kay Clarenbach made the list of twenty-five women still alive who were the movers and shakers of the founding of the modern women’s movement who came from the Midwest. And then I set about to try and get a grant to do this research. And that was the worst experience that I have ever had.
Teicher: How so?
Lerner: That’s not the worst experience I’ve ever had. But as an academic, it was a really bad experience. I was very anxious to get an NEH grant because I needed to interview twenty-five people. You know you need a staff. And I wanted to employ three students. And I wanted the project to be four years. And I wanted to get all of those twenty-five women interviewed. And they were in their seventies and eighties. And I didn’t have much time. So the only way to go was to get a big grant. And I knew from experience, having gotten a lot of grant before that you need to lay the basis for a big grant. So I got the director of Memorial Library, then director, Kaye what’s her face—
Teicher: Oh, Kaye Gapen (1943-2019)?
Lerner: Kaye what?
Lerner: To cosponsor. And the director of the state historical society, and the state archivist. And I figured that would give us some clout with NEH. And to do that, I wanted to also collect the papers of these women insofar as they hadn’t been collected. And that made it an archival project. And I was advised by people that I’d worked with before at NEH to go to archival. Because I had a better chance.
And so Kaye Gapen, as you know, was a very problematic person. And she loused up the project in a major way. She cost me six months of work that I never redeemed, you know. She made promises of things she was going to do in the library that were never done. And I had to drag her along. I mean, I couldn’t drop her once it started, do you understand?
Teicher: Mm hmm. Right, right. Yeah.
Lerner: It was awful. Well, anyway, we wrote the grant finally, the grant proposal, 00:48:00 and submitted it in time. It was something like a fifty-page grant. You have it in the archives. I mean, it was a big thing. And then of course I got the university to cosponsor and the matching grant and all that stuff, which takes weeks and weeks. And we submitted. And the procedure at NEH is that one person works with you on your grant proposal. And they sort of vet it to see if you make any errors or if you have left out something that’s a requirement. They help you. And this person was very enthusiastic about it. And then we were turned down. And we were turned down on the ground that the archival part of the project was essentially not written in archival language. Well, I don’t know archival language. Very true. It wasn’t written in archival language. And that we made no distinction between accessioning and what-now and how. So they turned it down but they said with a recommendation to resubmit and to make these changes. And they suggested that I work with some archival people.
So I went right to the state archivist. And he helped me rewrite it. He did a great job. I mean, he said, “This is nothing. It’s ridiculous that they rejected it. We just need to change the language.” We changed the language like, you know, you know, I don’t have to explain it to you.
Teicher: Yeah. Right.
Lerner: But I mean like I had not put in what will be done with the tapes when they’re gathered, and how will they be indexed, and all that stuff. So he put all that stuff in it. Which made us go to another cycle, right? So I’d lost the year.
Lerner: Two people died.
Teicher: People are getting older and dying. Right.
Lerner: Two people died in that year! Two of the best people. The students had no support. I mean, it was a catastrophe. In the meantime, I was trying to get, I applied to local grants. The Humanities Commission, the Knapp Fund, to this fund, to that fund. Each for twenty thousand, fifteen thousand. Nickels and dimes. Each separate grant proposal I’m figuring, and I did. I managed to keep one student occupied, starting on the research for the oral history, assuming I would get the NEH grant. So then we rewrote the NEH grant. That was another heavy-duty job.
In the meantime, a new director had come to NEH. Her name is Lynne Cheney (b. 1941).
Teicher: Mm hmm. Sounds familiar. 00:51:00
Lerner: And Lynne Cheney I know personally very well because I ran up against her in a number of meetings of the National Humanities Council where I was a representative of the AHA. Okay? She hated my guts. She doesn’t like anything I stand for. And I don’t like anything she stands for. Which I didn’t think would matter. It’s a big agency, right?
Well, the person that worked with me at NEH was ecstatic about the changes. And she went to the archival section and said all the archival stuff is terrific, wonderful, no problem. Since the rest of it had been approved, I was sure we would get it, right? And then there’s of course for a practical person like me, there are enormous problems. The grant, if we had gotten it, would have been, let’s say, for September, okay? And it would have given three students support for the year. They don’t tell you whether you get the grant until the end of April. Well, if I don’t know if I have a job, if the student doesn’t know by the end of April whether she has a job in the fall, she’s going to take a job. A PAship or whatever, right? She’s not going to wait around. School closes in a week. So I was frantic about the fact that even if I get it, I was losing the students. Of course, you can’t mention when you get a grant that it’s to support students.
Teicher: Of course.
Lerner: That would immediately kill the grant.
Teicher: Kiss of death. (laughs)
Lerner: So this was not about supporting students. So I took the unusual initiative of calling my person at NEH that I worked with and explaining to her what the urgency of this was, and was there any way that she could give me her opinion of what our chances were, so that I could in good conscience say to the students, “Well, wait it out.”
She said, “You know, I can’t do that.” I said, I know. But she said, “It has really improved so much. And they liked it last time. That’s all I can tell you. Looks very good,” she said. And that was like on Friday. And the decision was to be made on Tuesday.
I said, “Well, where does it have to go still?”
She said, “Oh, it’s gone every place. Just the director has to sign off.”
Well on Tuesday, I was turned down. Okay? 00:54:00 (laughs)
And I had already prepared, in case I’m turned down. So I went to the dean. And the dean helped me get three or four small grants through the university. And we cut the project down to twenty people. And we cut it down to three years. And I never had enough money for postage or nothing. And through all this, I had no secretarial help. And we did it.
Teicher: A battle. (laughs)
Lerner: We did it. And we did it. And of course it was a wonderful project. Because what we found was that the twenty-two women we interviewed, including Kay, that we made a profile of these women. And they were as I said before, a totally different profile than anybody knew. And these women, we made a record of every organization they belonged to as activists. And we found that the majority of them had been active in organizations for thirty years. There was my proof that at least in the Midwest, there was no slump in women’s organization. Because these women had been active in League of Women Voters, in housing, in school issues. You name it. In NAACP. In the trade union movement. Five of them, six of them were trade union leaders. Four of them were Black women. Have you ever heard how the women’s movement is all white from its beginning? It’s garbage. So it was really a very exciting project.
And then, one of the women that worked on the project as an interviewer, Joyce Follet, she conceived of the idea that she wanted to make a video of it. So then we had to raise money for the video. Which I said over my dead body, I want nothing to do with it. And she said well she would do it. And I helped her, of course, write the grant. And then I went finally twice I went to the dean for more money.
And the last time was really ironic. I mean, I’ve just described the process for you. I think I wrote seven different grant proposals for this project, okay? And I come to him. And she was short of, I think it was thirty-five—00:57:00 yeah, she needed thirty thousand or thirty-five thousand dollars.
Teicher: Now is this Dave Cronon that you’re talking about, the dean?
Lerner: This was actually Curtin, it was Phil Curtin (1922-2009). And we come to him, we have the, the film has been filmed. But we need money to finish it and blah, blah, blah. I’m on my usual, made the pitch of how important it was and the significance of this project and so on. And I said, “Maybe you could help us to get another one of these smaller grants.”
And he said, “Well, we have been reevaluating the way we handle grants. And we think it’s ridiculous to have these nickel and dime applications. It’s wasteful and it doesn’t accomplish anything. And we have the illusion that we’re supervising, and we’re not supervising. And we should really fund the whole project.” And he gave us the money. In one afternoon. This is after—(laughter)
Teicher: After how many grants?
Lerner: After how many grants? We didn’t even write a note. I think we wrote one page. So anyway, the film has now been, it’s out. It’s a video. And it’s commercially circulating. And it’s doing very well. And it’s making our case. And I think it made a real contribution to Wisconsin history. So. Where are we?
Teicher: You wanted to mention one thing about the deans.
Lerner: Yeah, the deans and the administration has always been very supportive of me. I mean, I have really worked very well with them. And dean of students and everyone in administration. I’ve had great support.
Teicher: And you said last time that Dave Cronon, Curtin, and Irv Shain were helpful to you.
Lerner: And I should say quickly, I worked on the outreach committee. And I didn’t find that very satisfying because I felt that basically the decisions had already been made before the committee made its recommendations. And I didn’t particularly like that.
Teicher: Well, let’s talk about any other committee works. Since you started with that, did you serve on any other campus-wide committees?
Lerner: Well, I served on various departmental committees. The year after, the year I came, the department set up a strategy committee. (kettle boiling) I’d better get that.
Teicher: Yeah, we have tea water boiling. [pause] We were talking about your—
Lerner: I served on the long-range planning committee for the department, where they were trying to project what fields they needed to develop. That was the first year. And then I served on innumerable search committees. And I don’t think I served on any other—oh, yeah, then of course I served on the chair professor’s committee. Which at the time made decisions about who was to be promoted.
Teicher: Oh, that’s a very important committee.
Lerner: Well, that means you were automatically eligible if you were a chair professor.
Teicher: How many chair professors were there in the history department? Approximately.
Lerner: Oh, maybe nine or ten. And I think there were only two that had more than one chair, and I was one of them. And I was the only woman on that committee. It was pretty nasty. Fortunately, that committee was abolished. But I don’t think I want to talk about that.
Teicher: We don’t have to go into that. You also served on—
Lerner: Outreach committee.
Teicher: Outreach committee. And you worked on the Madison plan.
Teicher: Talk about that for a moment.
Lerner: That was very interesting. I volunteered for that. In fact, I asked whether I could serve on it. That was supposed to be a student-run committee. And so very few faculty were interested in being on it. Because who wants to be on a committee on race run by students? I mean, that was like a hot potato committee. I’m sorry I can’t remember. 00:03:00 There were a couple of African American professors. [Richard] Ralston. And then from African American studies, literature professor. And then a mathematician and myself. And I think he and I were the only two white professors. So we’re very few faculty on the committee to begin with. And then they had administrators on the committee. They were also mostly African American. And the students had a big argument over whether they had a veto as to who was on the committee. And they weren’t sure they wanted me. They didn’t know me. And there were quite some arguments about it. And then they learned a little bit more about me and then they were very glad to have me and I got along very well with them all along.
But it was a, this was a committee that was a very angry group of people with very major grievances that had gone back for many, many decades. And this group of students, you know, was determined to do something about it. And essentially you had a lot of, they wanted to absolutely change the university’s whole culture in regard to race. They were, you know, like students are, students think if you make enough noise, anything is possible.
Teicher: Yeah. Right.
Lerner: And nothing short of 100% was good enough.
Teicher: Acceptable, yeah.
Lerner: So it was a, we worked all through the summer. And we had long, long and very heavy sessions. And I found, of course, there were very few people with organizational experience. And that, of course, makes a lot of difference. And I could see, I had worked in the area of race relations for decades. So I wasn’t easily intimidated by a lot of rhetoric. I mean, I knew about that. And mostly what the students had in mind was to make demands. And they started out with these non-negotiable demands.
Teicher: Right. (laughter)
Lerner: They make demands. And the demands would be such that the university would be forced to hire Black professors. 00:06:00 More Black professors. Well, now, I thought that the demand to have more people of color among the professors was a very, very good demand. The question, I mean, the fact of the matter was that it’s very difficult to get, at that time, in many areas, it was very difficult—
Teicher: Mm hmm. Right. To find the people.
Lerner: —to get highly-qualified people. Because they were in demand in every university. And they were being offered a lot more money. And many of them did not think the attraction of the winter in Madison was enough to compensate for that. So, the students wouldn’t hear of that. Just, we have to mandate it.
And then we had a long discussion, long discussions about the fact that the students wanted, they wanted, so they wanted more professors at all ranks. But tenure-leading jobs. Then they wanted people that would be administrators. They wanted to change that. Which, again, it’s a good demand. The university was overwhelmingly white. They needed scholarship money to attract Black students. And they reasoned that if you didn’t have enough faculty of color, that Black students wouldn’t be attracted to the university. And then of course there were the usual conflicts between different constituencies. The Asian Americans, African Americans, and Native Americans, and so on. Latinos. It was interesting.
And then they wanted a building. Or a center. And then they wanted certain number of required courses. They wanted a requirement in the curriculum that everybody had to take a course in a different culture. Well now, that was something we had in the women’s history program.
Lerner: I talked about that. And I think it’s a very good, educationally sound proposal. I thought it would be impossible to enact. Because you cannot tell in a faculty-run institution, you cannot tell departments, nobody can tell departments what courses to offer.
Lerner: I mean, I didn’t see how you could change that unless it came out of L&S that such and such courses are required. So we had a lot of discussion on these matters.
Teicher: Well, was it basically student-led? I mean, did they take the initiative on all of the discussions? What role did you play?
Lerner: They chatted. They chatted. 00:09:00 They made the agenda. They decided what items were to be discussed. They had the majority vote. There were about, what, maybe thirty-five, thirty-six people involved. The majority of them were students of color. Which is how it, that’s okay. It was understood.
Teicher: Right. Makes sense.
Lerner: So I took it as my role to, number one, to talk about what I thought could be done and what could not be done. And to talk about some of the institutional constraints that they would meet. Well, that didn’t make me very popular at the beginning. They didn’t like that. But very soon they began to see that I was talking in their interest. I mean, and one of the things I pointed out to them, I said, “I urge you not to ask for a building. Because that is the one thing you will get. You will get nothing else.”
They said, “How could you say that?”
I said, “Well, I can tell you I’ve been following the establishment of Black studies all over the nation. And you make that demand. That’s an easy demand for the administration to give you. It just costs money. And they’d be very happy to keep you shut up and satisfied with having your building. And when you have it, you haven’t got anything. You haven’t got a better education. You have no more faculty, no more personnel. And I urge you not to put that in.”
Teicher: Did they—
Lerner: Of course they put it in, and it’s the only thing they got. (laughter) No, that’s not quite right. But that was the first thing they got. They got that. I knew it. The other part was that of course the administrators were, their role really was to try and steer them to, you know, token demands. They would be happy to settle for token demands. And I pointed out to them that there was no point for them to waste their energy on making demands on changing the curriculum until they had more Black students and more faculty. “You can’t get it.” I said, “Nobody’s going to mandate what a professor here can teach. You can make that demand. You can demonstrate all you want, you’re not going to get it.” Obviously not.
“Well, that’s the only way we’re going to get the professors.”
I said, “No. That’s not the only way. The argument has to be—which is an educationally sound argument—that it is very bad for white students to be taught only by white professors in a world which is predominantly a world of color.” That’s the argument to make. 00:12:00 You don’t make the argument that you have to have for each person a relevant number of members of their group. We make that for women, too. But that’s not our main argument. Our main argument is what’s educationally sound.
So that was sort of the role I played. And of course at the end, they selected me to be the spokesperson for the faculty, the students. When it came to negotiating. Well by that time, Donna Shalala had come in. And Donna, of course, had long experience in dealing with race relations in New York City as a college president.
Teicher: At Hunter College, yes.
Lerner: Mm hmm. She also wasn’t afraid of the issue. And she took it over. It wasn’t called the Madison Plan then. It was called the students, whatever. Black Students Plan or something. And she said, “Ah, we’re going to make this the Madison Plan and take it over.” And she essentially rewrote it, leaving out the things that, you know, she knew she couldn’t get, and putting in things that she thought she could get, and setting some targets. And the students were very, as you know, there were demonstrations after she did that. The students were not happy with what she did. But in fact, she accomplished a lot, because she did give priority to the hiring of people of color in every department. I mean, that was something she did, and she put a whip 13:39 behind it. And they got the building. (laughs) predictably.
Teicher: Was that the multicultural center?
Lerner: Yeah. Yep, yep, yeah. And having it doesn’t do much. That does not, I mean, that was the thing that if you’ve had a lot of experience in social change, you know what works and what doesn’t work. This was not the way to work it. But you have to deal with each group of students as they come along. They don’t know. They’re young and they have their own ideas. It was a very interesting experience. A little bit exasperating. But it was fine. I’m glad I served on that committee.
Teicher: It’s very interesting. Let’s talk about your teaching for a while.
Teicher: Perhaps we ought to just begin for a little bit at the beginning with your teaching at Sarah Lawrence and segue into UW.
Lerner: Well, no, we should begin with where I started teaching, which is Siberia. Long Island University, Brooklyn.
Teicher: Okay. Let’s start there.
Lerner: That’s like a low-grade city university for the kind of students that couldn’t enter City College. First generation in their family 00:15:00 to go to college. Eighty-nine or 90% of them working fulltime jobs while they’re going to college. And that place I taught when I was still a graduate student. And then I advanced very quickly there. Because if you published, you automatically advance. So I was practically ready to become chair of the department in no time at all, because I published a lot more than anybody else there. But it was a very, very difficult place to teach. Because while I was still writing my dissertation, you had classes of a hundred, okay? And they were all lecture courses. And you had to teach four of them a semester. No, I’m sorry, three of them a semester. Six courses. And they were all mostly survey. And every year you had to teach the US survey. So I would have two, you know, two courses in the US survey. And then I would have one survey in economic history one semester, intellectual history another semester. Social history, another semester. And labor history and business history another semester. Well, by the time you prepared all those survey courses, you know. (laughs) And then I taught an honors seminar there, too. And I’m pleased to say we had some students became, went on to PhD programs out of that honors seminar.
The one thing that was very interested there is that the university, because its main philosophy was to fill the seats, they took a lot of handicapped people of every sort. So while I was there, I had several blind students. I had a deaf student. And I had a quadriplegic student who became a very close friend, and whom I stayed in touch with until he died. For many years after. But it was very interesting to have these students, very broad.
And it was a school where these students had nothing but contempt for the faculty that would teach students like them. And they had a lot of self-contempt for being unable to make City College. And they figured everybody who 00:18:00 teaches them must be no good. So I decided from the beginning to, what we had to do is I had to make a cultural island in my classes. And I started right in by saying, “My notion of why you are here is that you messed up in the third year of high school.” And that was a relief. I said, “That doesn’t mean you’re stupid. Doesn’t mean you can’t get a first-rate education. And it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to working at McDonald’s. You messed up in the third year of high school when it mattered. And you didn’t straighten out soon enough to qualify for all of those multiple-choice tests.” And we went from there. And I said to them, “I don’t know what goes on in the other classrooms. But here you’re getting the best education that is given at Columbia, that’s what I’m going to give you, and I think better. And I want you to respect me. And I’m respecting you. And we’re going to start by right now there’s nobody going to eat or drink in this class.” And they muttered and grumbled.
And one guy raised his hand, he says, “I come here from work. I’ve got to eat.”
I said, “I’m sorry. I cannot have you in the class eating or drinking. That’s your problem. On the way, you can eat something. I will make no changes on that.”
So the next time I come to class, all but one guy, they had obeyed this. And this guy sat in the second row chomping on a hamburger and drinking a Coke. And before I said anything, I said, “I don’t know your name yet, but please leave the class.”
He says, “What? I’m not. What’s the matter?”
I said, “Well, you’re eating and drinking. And I told you what the rules are in this class.”
“Well, I ain’t leaving.”
So I folded my hand and I said, “Well, I ain’t talking until you’re leaving. So lets see what happens, huh?”
So we faced it out for about five minutes. Then the other students started grumbling and said, “get the hell out, man.” He walked out. And I had no trouble after that. (Teicher laughs)
And I, you know, I wanted to set up an atmosphere that this class is really, you know, we’re doing intellectual work here. And you may not have the preparation. 00:21:00 But you can learn. And that worked, by and large. It was a rough place. You had to fight your way into every door. There was no such thing as somebody letting you go in first because you’re a teacher or anything like that. It was like the subway. It was in an old movie theater that had been broken up into classrooms.
Teicher: Oh, my. (laughs) Oh, geez.
Lerner: Horrible. But anyway, I escaped from that to Sarah Lawrence. And I went into like a total shock situation. Because Sarah Lawrence College is a small, liberal arts college that had at the time 950 students in the entire student body. And a faculty of about 120. And a very superb faculty. And a very unusual system of instruction and construction. You teach only two courses a semester. There are very few lecture courses. You can teach a lecture course, but you’re not required. The usual seminar was between fifteen and eighteen students. Twelve to eighteen students. And that sounds really nice and easy, doesn’t it? But each student in your seminar—now the seminars are run like graduate seminars. That is, the students read and do papers and so on. But each student does what’s called a contract. And the contract is to do an independent research paper of about thirty pages each semester on a subject of their choice. And you have to meet with the student a half an hour every other week. So you’re doing thirty different research papers in addition to two seminars. Which is very, very, very intense. Plus they have a system of tutorial supervision, mentoring. You get assigned a tutor. A tutee. You are the tutor to that person. And they follow the Oxford England system, you know? And that student can come to you with any problem at any time, and you have to make time for them. So in pure time, I mean, people work four, five days a week. Very intense teaching. And quite the opposite teaching. There’s no surveys. 00:24:00 But if you’re there, I figured this out, you do thirty research papers a year. No, a semester, right? That’s sixty research papers a year that you read and supervise. Ten years. I was there twelve years. There is hardly a subject in American history that I haven’t conducted research on. So it’s a very great place to learn how to be a teacher.
Teicher: Yes. Exactly.
Lerner: So while I was there, I set up their women’s studies program and their graduate program in women’s history in 1972. And I think I mentioned to you that this was the first in the country, and the first, I think, in the world. The faculty was opposed to it because they said we don’t need women’s studies. We are teaching women. We know all about teaching women. And it took me a year to convince them that teaching women is not the same thing as women’s studies.
Teicher: What about the administration?
Lerner: The administration when I came was a wonderful educator, Esther Rauschenbush (1898-1980), But she was retiring. And the man who came in, I think I mentioned—
Teicher: Yeah, you mentioned him last time.
Lerner: From IBM. And to him, the whole thing was anathema. But by that time, I had already secured a Rockefeller grant for three years for writing a women’s studies program. And so that was money. So he understood money and he figured that he would make my life so unpleasant that I would leave. Well, he actually was fired before I left, so I outlasted him. And in the end, we got along quite well. But it was a constant struggle.
But anyway, in the women’s history program, in the graduate program, we of course were very interested in also creating this women’s community. And of course there was always the struggle for space. And they put us in a building that was right next to building and ground on the parking lot. Way away from the rest of the campus. I mean, the worst building that you could be in. And we just took it. 00:27:00 And it became bigger and bigger and bigger. And the president could not, I mean, he couldn’t stand it.
But anyway, we were interested in what they called feminist teaching. I just thought it was good teaching. But Sarah Lawrence anyway had this great teaching emphasis. So part of the feminist teaching idea was to work as much as possible in groups. Well, the system at Sarah Lawrence was that you worked with the individual. So we had this job of sort of breaking down the system.
Teicher: Oh, my.
Lerner: Kind of quietly. Now, when I got the Rockefeller grant—I think I don’t want to go into that whole story. It’s too long. But at that time, they had just hired a Renaissance historian, Joan Kelly-Gadol (1928-1982). And she came from City University. She was not yet, she was on leave. She wasn’t sure she wanted to take it. They were very excited about her. She had a great reputation. She was a very charismatic personality. And somehow or other, the executive committee, which runs the school, faculty runs the school there really actively. I think in order to keep, to frustrate me, they insisted that they would approve the women’s history program only if she would be my co-director. She was brand new to the thing. She didn’t do women’s history yet. In fact, I’m the person that had to convince her that there was a women’s history of the Renaissance. Then she did some of the most brilliant work done in the field. But the fact is that they did this thinking it would kind of curb the program. And she had I became very close friends. And we decided right from the beginning that we were really going to cooperate and do everything together, and not allow each other to be maneuvered around one against the other. And that worked really well.
And she was a brilliant teacher. And she innovated something that I have never seen anybody else do, and I learned from her. She could give a lecture course with 120 00:30:00 people at City College. And she would take each row, and she would say, “You’re a group.” Each row is a group. And she would give them group assignments and set aside part of her lecture time to let them discuss things in groups. So she managed to even organize groups in a lecture course.
Teicher: My gosh.
Lerner: And then we began to, we had the money for a half a year of faculty development to start our women’s studies program. And we, because we were interested in collective teaching, group teaching, we conceived of this, that it should be—well, we wanted to have [break in tape]
Teicher: Women’s studies really has to be interdisciplinary.
Lerner: Interdisciplinary. And we were all trained in one field, most of us. Or two, at the most. And the system at Sarah Lawrence demands that you teach two courses of fifteen students each. so we said if we want two teacher team teach a course, well how could that be done? It can’t be done. So we said yes, it can be done. We’re going to take four teachers. And these four teachers are each going to have a seminar of fifteen students, okay? And we have some money for faculty development. We’re going to use that to prepare this course. And the course, the seminar usually meets two hours on Tuesday, two hours on Thursday. Your own seminar. And then you do all these hundreds of research projects, right?
So we took four faculty. Joan Kelly for Renaissance, myself for American history, Eva Kollisch for literature and Sherry Ortner for anthropology. And we worked together and we designed the course. And here’s how it went. We all together, sixty of us, sixty students and four teachers, met on Tuesday morning for two hours. And we had assigned to each of us four lectures. Each got four lectures to give. And at various, we spaced it, this was all planned. The subject was women, myth, and reality. And let’s say the first one was a lecture by Sherry Ortner on anthropology. And all the students would be there and the faculty. And she would lecture for an hour, and then we would have an hour of discussion with the sixty people. On Thursday, each seminar met separately and did what it would do in one subject. And then, 00:33:00 we had planned it so that the papers that the students were doing, the research projects, were all on the subject of women, myth, and reality, but on different aspects in each seminar. And the last four weeks of the course, in the lecture period, the students presented their papers in groups and we all discussed them. So we had this absolutely, and the college, the bookkeeping of the college was not disturbed. I got paid for my seminar. Kelly got paid for her seminar. Etcetera.
Lerner: Wait. The course unfortunately attracted a hundred students, not sixty. And we didn’t know what to do with that. So we found somebody in the theater department that had a theater group affiliated, and they did something. But they did it separately. In other words, it was coordinated, but it wasn’t part of it.
But then, we had over twenty faculty members from all of the surrounding areas of New York who wanted to take this course. And we opened it up, we opened the Tuesdays to those faculty members, too. And we had a zoologist, and psychologist, and an economist. You name it, we had it.
Well, this course was sensational. It was the most exciting course I’ve ever taught. Out of it came three pathbreaking monographs which defined scholarship in the field. Joan Kelly, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” (1976), Sherry Ortner, “Is Nature to Nurture as Male to Female?” [“Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” (1974)] And mine, what was mine? I can’t think of the title now. But it’s something that has been reprinted a thousand times. I’d have to look it up. Where’s the vita?
Teicher: Okay. Hold on a second. It’s not in the vita, so we’re just going to have to—
Lerner: Should I go up and get it? I don’t know. I forget. It was either “The Majority Finds its Past” or “Placing Women in History.” And at least four or five of the faculty that attended it immediately prepared courses in their fields as a result of it. 00:36:00 And this seminar was then, the format of it was used. We started a project and Joan Kelly mostly initiated it where AHA gave teaching workshops to teachers on women’s history. And they used this format. You can take any group of people. I mean, we taught it with three or four different combinations of faculty. And that was replicated all over the country. It became a model for the feminist module, so to speak.
And so I began then after that to break down the Sarah Lawrence individualism by restricting the students, in a way suggesting to them that they could pick their topics for research from certain fields in this course, right? And that it would have to be, they could pick one out of, they could pick any out of six or seven fields that I designated for this course and that I would have four people work on this same field. For example, I gave a course in biography and autobiography. But I said I want half of, I mean, some people have to take women, some people have to take men. Some people have to take whites, some people have to take Blacks. And we have four people that work on Black biography, four people that work on women and so on. And that way, I was able to handle the students better and they began to work with each other.
And we always used this model of presenting student work to the class at the end of the class as part of the class. And that is a very important principle. That student work should not be something between the teacher and the student only, but should involve the whole class.
Teicher: Learning from the whole community.
Lerner: Yes. Right. So that’s one of the things I learned from the Sarah Lawrence model and brought to Wisconsin and used it in my classes here the same way. You know? And I always had them work in groups. So whatever, and then another aspect that I developed at Sarah Lawrence is that I always ask students, I arrange it so the students are partnered with somebody. I do it by having them sit in a random order at the first class. 00:39:00 And I say, “Turn to the right and that’s your partner for this class.” That way I’m sure that they all have a partner. And I urge them to use the partner as a reader for their class assignment. And have the partner, the partner can make editorial suggestions, can make structural suggestions. You can rewrite the paper after the partner has seen it. And that’s fine. Because that’s what you would do, if I do an essay, I don’t send it to the publisher immediately. I have somebody look at it. And I said, “You’re on an honor system that you’re not writing each other’s papers. But obviously you won’t do that. Why should you write two papers?”
And that works very well. the students learn from each other. And they love to do that. They love to learn from each other. And then I usually would partner them with the person on their left for a particular assignment. And that way, each student has two people that he works with, or she works with, more intimately. And right away the seminar takes off in a different way. That’s a system I’ve used always. Instead of everybody working for the teacher and competing, I try to make them cooperate with each other in one form or another. And I structure it into the assignment, see?
Teicher: And again, part of this is a community building thing?
Lerner: No. It’s because learning takes place better. I believe that learning is not an individual matter. People learn best when they’re in dialog with other people. And when they are being challenged by other people. And when they’re not just, when their mind is not just on competing, competing, but rather on the product that we’re going to present to the class together.
Teicher: Now this is a different approach. Were the students able to handle that okay?
Lerner: Oh, yeah.
Teicher: Did they enjoy it?
Lerner: Oh, they love it. They love it. And it helps the weaker student. Because when students see the work of other students, they get a standard. Because very often, the student gets a paper. Say the student gives a paper and it’s a C paper. I put down C. And I might even say an explanation, you don’t do this, you don’t do that. Okay. The student feels I’m terrible, it’s awful. That student has probably never seen an A paper. Has no idea what an A paper looks like.
Lerner: Well if I have that student working in a group of four with one getting As, one Bs, one Cs, that student will quickly come up from C. Okay? They learn what it is that makes a better paper. 00:42:00 Students learn better with this method. That’s all. And they also participate in discussion better. Because they already feel comfortable with four people out of twelve, or four people out of eighteen. And what has happened is that the students have become lifelong friends.
Teicher: Oh, that’s interesting.
Lerner: Yeah. Right now, next week, one of my former students from here, from Wisconsin, who has two small children under four years of age, is a fulltime faculty member, on a vacation week is traveling six hours by car to visit me for the day. And she didn’t do the dissertation with me.
Teicher: So when you came to Madison, you developed a lot of those, you used a lot of the same things.
Lerner: I did the same thing in all my classes here. I always do that. And depending on what you teach, now if you teach women’s history, one of the methods that I used in the teaching always is, see, women have each individually carried a big burden with them. Not only of structural discrimination, but of having internalized ideas about women’s position, the defaults. So a girl that’s been raised to think that girls are not as smart in science as boys believes that. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. When she comes into a classroom with, I mean, very often we have observed that there might be fifteen people in the seminar, and two boys. If the teacher asks a question, the two boys will answer. And the girls will not even raise their hand until the two boys have spoken.
Well, if you’re teaching feminist teaching method, this is no good. So you have to do something to change that. And one of the things that I have to work with in every class, but especially freshmen, is women speak in a manner without authority. They mumble, they mumble in their chest. They speak very softly. They can barely be heard. They don’t make eye contact. And those are not accidental things. Those are deeply internalized. This is body language.
Teicher: Right. Right, right.
Lerner: And I will say to them, “I can’t hear you. The person sitting next to me can’t hear you. Will you please speak up?” They hate it. And I explain why I’m doing this. Inside of three weeks, I’ve got everybody speaking. Okay? You’ve got to do that. So, self-confidence 00:45:00 for women in a classroom is not something that comes with the women. You have to build it. And so one of the things that I found very useful, especially if you teach women’s history, is to make them aware of the fact that their own life experience matters, and is valid, and is something they should use in thinking about the past. Just like I’ve told you that the fact that I was acquainted with how organizations work in a community helped me to direct my research in women’s history. Because I knew what women do in life.
Well, if you are trained to think that what you experience as a woman is totally unimportant, because women have, as you well know, have never contributed to culture. They haven’t written the Ninth Symphonies. They didn’t build Chartres Cathedral. And so on. And so forth. What have they ever done? Okay? If you believe that, when you are faced with a book that you read, a text, you’re not going to ask yourself in light of what I know of the world, how does the text read to me? You’re going to say oh, boy, I really don’t know much, you know? Really, that guy is so smart, I don’t know what to do.
Now this, you have to fight if you’re going to teach women’s studies and women’s history. So I give assignments at the beginning of any women’s history class on some personal experience that a student has had. and it varies. I give them, and that’s a short paper which I tell them will not be graded. But I tell them write only something that you want to share with the class, because it may be read in class. And then very often, the next week I will give them the same question, but ask a member of a past generation. Your mother or your grandmother. Okay? Well, they’re doing history. And then when we read these things in class, we’re using their life as subject. And we’re validating—
Teicher: Legitimizing, yeah.
Lerner: We’re legitimizing. We’re teaching them that their life matters. Is significant and should be considered as part of thinking. You think about your life. you don’t just think, that’s not holding hands with them, making them feel good. That’s in order to give them a counterweight to having been told 00:48:00 for two thousand years that women can’t think.
So, all these things are very significant. And they have a very good effect. Because once you do this, if you know how to do it. Of course you have to be very sensitive and careful. But if you once do it, well, and use it creatively, it enhances the whole atmosphere in the classroom and the way the students feel about learning.
I want to just tell you one case. I’m not going to use the name. But this is a student at Sarah Lawrence, an African American student, a woman. And I gave her, the class was in social change. That was the title of the class, Social Change in American History. And I gave an assignment that they are to interview either their parents or grandparents about anything that they have taken part in that might come under the rubric of social change. Okay? And write that up. Now this was in 69, at the height of the Black Power movement. And I had, out of twelve students, I had three Black students in my class.
Now this young woman said, “I’m not going to do this, and I don’t think you ought to give this assignment.”
And I said, “Why not?”
She said, “You’re ripping off Black people.”
And I said, “Well, anybody that doesn’t want to do this assignment, I’ll give you another assignment.” I immediately gave her another assignment.
And she came afterward to complain to me about it again. And I said, “Look. I heard you and I think I did the right thing. You don’t want to do it, don’t do it. It’s not going to be held against you.” This was like in October. And they had like six weeks to do this. Research. A little bit of oral history, right?
Well, she had family, a grandmother in the South. South Carolina or someplace. And after the Christmas vacation, my class didn’t start for another week, but I was in the office. And she’s sitting on the floor in front of my office with a big, big, like two shoeboxes this size. And she said, “I’ve got to see you right away. Right away.”
And I said, “What? 00:51:00 Can it wait until next week when we make appointments?”
She goes, “No, no, no! It can’t wait. I have to see you.” She comes in. And she said, without any transition, she says, “Well, I went home to my grandmother and I decided to ask her this question. And guess what? You wouldn’t believe this. Guess what? My grandfather founded the first school in the county for Black people. And my grandfather was, he built a church. And my grandmother was this.”
And I said, “What’s all this?”
She said, “Records! Records!” Okay. You know what? She was like, turn on. No apology, no nothing. I mean, okay. She wrote a really wonderful, like 75-page long paper about her family. About her family’s history. And on the strength of that paper, I encouraged her—no, on the strength of that paper, she decided that she wanted to get a graduate degree in history. And I encouraged her to apply at Yale. And she got a dissertation out of it at Yale. And a book.
Teicher: Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness. (laughs) She got it.
Lerner: She got it. She’s a professor.
Teicher: (laughs) That’s great.
Lerner: The moral of that one is, stay cool. If you can. Stay cool.
Teicher: Let’s just talk briefly about your retirement. It doesn’t sound like much of a retirement. Tell me a little bit about some of the activities that you have focused on since you retired from the university?
Lerner: Well, uh, where’s the vita?
Teicher: Hold on a second.
Lerner: Well, I retired in 1991. And retired, I think, from just committee work and departmental obligations. But I consider that I’m neither retired from research nor from writing nor from teaching. Only different groups have different focus. I continued the activity on that oral history project after my retirement. That was, you know, whatever needed to be done with that, I continued. Then I wrote, I published three books after the retirement. And I have just finished a fourth one. So you can see, I was busy 00:54:00 with the writing. Why History Matters (1997) is a collection of essays with a sizable introduction. And it focuses on a broader interest in history that I’ve had. In other words, it’s not just women’s history.
One of the things that has happened as you’ve been told by Linda Gordon, it’s quite true. That in the years of my retirement, it so happened that I became sort of a well-known historian in the German-speaking realm. I made almost every year, or every other year, various tours to, book tours in Europe. Five of my books have appeared in German. Several in other languages, but I’m now talking about German language, mostly. And I became, I was involved or honored in various ways in Austria. Starting in 1992. And I was awarded a very big prize for women’s history of working-class women in 1995. And then I was awarded an honorary degree at the University of Vienna. And then I was awarded what is the equivalent of the Freedom Medal in America, the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art in 1996. And I have a big reading public in Germany. And I have taught, guest taught, both in Germany and Austria and Switzerland. But extended commitments of several weeks or months, six weeks, in Austria and Germany. University of Dortmund, University of Freiburg. University of Salzburg in Austria. And I’ve guest lectured in practically every university in Austria and Germany.
So that has sort of drawn my, first of all, I have also 00:57:00 recaptured my ability to speak and think in German. Which I had lost by not speaking German for fifty years. And I’m still not totally up to par. But I certainly can teach now in German and give a lecture. That has brought me more to, I mean, that has led me to focusing more on my experience as a Jewish exile and refugee. And I have been studying and also teaching some Jewish history, which I never before took up. So in Why History Matters, that subject matter—
Teicher: The first few essays deal with both of those. Yes, right.
Lerner: Yeah, they go on, both the autobiographical essays and also the general history as they bring in this new interest in Jewish history and in—and coming out of a course I’ve developed at UW, which is a lecture course. This course was, after I published Creation of Patriarchy, which takes place in the second and first millennium BC in the ancient Near East, I applied to my department and my colleagues and said, “I have spent eighteen years on these two books, but I’ve spent eleven years on Creation of Patriarchy, and I know I wasn’t trained in this field, but I’ve learned a lot. And I wondered if I could have your permission to give a course in which one part of the course deals with the ancient Near East. And the other part deals with Medieval Jewish history. And the other part deals with antebellum American history.” And they were very gracious about it and said that they certainly could indulge my whim on a one-time basis.
That course, the first, I turned down thirty students from the first course because I only would take a hundred. And I turned down sixty students the next year. And it became my signature course, my most popular course at UW, which I’ve taught three times before I retired. That course was actually, 01:00:00 it had a fancy title about the race, class, gender, blah, blah, blah, in these periods. But what it is is the history of the creation of “deviant out groups”.
And out of that course, I developed a great interest in the subject matter of the creation of the other as it applies not just to women, so to sex and gender, but to Blacks, to race, to class, to ethnicity, to religion, to homophobia. And I arrive at a conclusion which had already prefigured in that course, that these are all, that it’s always the same problem. And that the same methods are used, no matter what is the targeted group. Now this flies in the face of the way everybody in the world has been dealing with the subject. For the past thirty years in our culture, we’ve been greatly divided by different so-called cultural interest groups, each defining themselves as a constituency which has a unique problem because they have been mistreated historically for this reason or that reason. They have nothing in common with each other. In fact, they’re set against each other in the battle for resources. I came to an analysis that this is totally wrong. That it’s always the same problem. And the problem is that hierarchical structures, like patriarchy, like nationalistic government—
Lerner: These hierarchical structures, in order to exist, they require an enemy. Now usually that enemy has been provided by their neighbors, and it’s been us versus them. But even internally, they have required an enemy. And so they have constructed that enemy because they needed to keep the hierarchy going. And my analysis is, is that it’s totally irrelevant to them who the target group is. The target group is a matter of opportunity. So it is possible in a country without Jews, like contemporary Poland, to have virulent antisemitism.
Teicher: Very interesting.
Lerner: It is possible to create a monster out of welfare mothers who, up to then in American history, have been the widows and orphans, and objects of pity and concern. And all of a sudden are set up as the enemy of the state. It doesn’t matter what the target is; the target is opportunistic.
And moreover, the way in which you create that deviant out group, is very simple. And I’ve got it down to five points. I can teach it to you and you can go out and create your own deviant out group. And I have used this, I’ve developed this and I spell this out in the major essay in Why History Matters. But I have since then developed a workshop on multiculturalism, I call it. But essentially it teaches you that how these issues are connected, how they’re constructed, what function they perform and how they can be fought. And it is my contention that that they cannot be fought individually. That as long as we regard each of these manifestations as a separate disease to be treated individually, we just recreate other groups. So when we try to approach the problem of race relations by remedial affirmative action, we create a new disaffected group of white working-class men who say, “We’re the new victims.”
So I have been giving, between 1994 and 1999, one, two, three, four, five, six, Salzburg, seven, eight or nine of these 00:03:00 workshops all over the world. New Zealand, Germany, Austria, America. Two of them—no, I’ve given ten. One was at the, two of them I gave to the staff of the dean of students at the UW. And you can ask the former dean of students, Mary Rouse about it. They were very successful. And one I gave, I was invited by the executives of the Ford Foundation to give to their foundation.
Teicher: Oh, my.
Lerner: But of course, being the Ford Foundation, they told me I have an hour to do it. And I said, forget it. (laughter) Forget it. And they actually broke their tradition and they stayed two and a half hours, which I understand is sensational, because they never do that. So that has taken a lot of my time and interest. And I was very gratified to be able to do something theoretical out of it. I was invited to participate in the revision of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. And they offered me a number of topics which I didn’t like. And I suggested to them that I do an essay on the intersection of race, class, ethnicity and gender. And they gave me all of four thousand words for this. (laughter) And I said, I should get four thousand at least for each subject, for each one separately. Well, they didn’t think so. And the result was that I was forced to do what’s the hardest thing, is to take a complex subject and make it very simple. And I did that. And they were really ecstatic about it. They had no corrections, no changes. And told me afterwards I could have an extra thousand words. And then I said, you forget it. I’m finished! I’m not going to expand it now that I finally got it down to the essence. (laughter)
Teicher: That’s great.
Lerner: So that has just come out. And that sort of is the culmination of the work I’ve done on this subject. I have never, I have not yet written up an article on the workshop. Although people have asked me to do it, somehow I haven’t been able to do it. I may yet do that. I don’t know.
Teicher: One final question. What’s next?
Lerner: What’s next?
Teicher: What are you, what future projects besides the one 00:06:00 you just mentioned?
Lerner: Well, I have a book out, which if I get a publisher, I will have to work on, revise. And for the first time in almost forty years, I have no next project. Purposely. I have a project sort of on the way back burner. I did all the research years ago on the women’s antislavery movement in the state of Ohio. I have all the research done. I never wrote it. That will make a nice essay. I may do that. I may not. I don’t know. I want to leave myself a little chance now to do what I feel like doing without any goal. I don’t mean to say that I’m not going to write. I’m going to write and I’m going to research. But I don’t want to predetermine it right now. I have no unfinished project at the moment, you know. Perhaps except for revising this workshop article. But I’m not very interested in this. So if I’m not very interested in something, I don’t do it. You know.
Teicher: Right. (laughs)
Lerner: I don’t know. I think when you’re eighty years old, I think you should allow yourself a little space.
Teicher: That sounds fair.
Lerner: You should allow yourself a little space to see what floats up as being significant. I really don’t know. I am, I may not do anything in history. I may do just something in fiction. You know? I’ve been a writer longer than I’ve been a historian. So I may go back to that. I don’t know. But at the moment, I don’t want to determine it. So that’s my answer. So maybe in a sense I’m retiring, I’m thinking more of retiring right now, for at least for a few months. Or this may be only because I’m recovering from major surgery that I’m talking like that. I don’t know. But anyway, I think I’ve had enough activity for ten lives.
Teicher: Yea. Yeah, I would agree with that. (laughs) I’d like to thank you very much for these last two sessions. I’ve enjoyed them and I’m sure the listeners will feel the same. Thank you very much, Professor Lerner.
Lerner: Okay. Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure. 00:09:00 It really has.
Total time = 243 minutes