A lifetime battling oppression


By Angie Schaffer

What better way to celebrate the final days of Women’s History Month than with a tribute to one of the pioneers behind the women’s revolution in the United States?

UNO first offered a minor in women’s studies in 1998 and a major in 2001. However, many years before, an Austrian Jewish immigrant interested in black women in America began the first master’s degree program in women’s history in the United States in 1972.

Upon arriving in the United States in 1938 after escaping Nazi persecution in Austria, Gerda Lerner became involved in the treatment black women received in the United States. She saw their persecuted status here as similar to that which she suffered as a Jew in Austria; it was not until later in her life that she began to address anti-Semitic issues in the United States.

Her interest in women’s history, she says, is derived from her experiences as a youth in Europe. She views women as a group that has been considered secondary to men throughout history, much as Jews in history — particularly during her childhood — have been viewed as an outgroup. Upon arriving in the U.S., Lerner thought racial and gender issues were problematic, but religious issues were not; after many years here, she changed her mind.

“In America, anti-Semitism is not a major form of oppression,” Lerner says in an interview with the Jewish Women’s Archive, found online at www.jwa.org. “People concerned with oppression try to rectify racial injustice. But it’s all the same process — racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia. We mark groups as deviants and then persecute or scapegoat them.”

With a little work, one can find various articles and letters written by Lerner on topics as recent as the war in Afghanistan. For an immigrant woman with more than 80 years under her belt, publishing an article in the *New York Times is something to brag about.

When she was young, she fought against her generation’s social problems; today is no different. Lerner is still fighting the injustice she has found in her life and actively participating in the history we create every day.

Information for this article was found at: www.jwa.org, www.nwhp.org and www.nytimes.com.


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