Temple students and faculty filed into the Kiva Auditorium last Thursday as award-winning author and historian Gerda Lerner was on hand for a discussion and signing of her recently released autobiography “Fireweed.”
A pioneer in women’s history, Lerner has first-hand experience of historical events that helped to shape the 20th century. She survived civil war in her native country, Austria, as well as persecution by the Nazi regime.
At the age of 19, she came to the United States and fought against McCarthyism and Hollywood blacklisting. She became committed to abolishing racism and sexism and establishing peace, civil liberties and better schools. In the 1960s Lerner returned to school and dedicated herself to instituting the field of women’s studies.
The event was sponsored by the Temple Women’s Studies Department and Temple University Press. Lerner captivated those in attendance with her inspiring political and social ideologies.
“It was really moving to be here and witness first hand her sharing some of the stories of her life experiences,” said Rebecca Hains, a doctoral candidate in mass media.
Since her entrance into academia, Lerner has stressed the importance of women in society and has set the standard for women’s studies in colleges and universities across the country.
“For thousands of years women have been told that they are not as capable as men,” she said. “People need to understand that everything has always been created by men and women.”
With every seat in the auditorium filled, students lined the back wall and sat on stairs to listen to Lerner read excerpts of her autobiography. Her discussion was highlighted by the gripping retelling of her hometown Vienna, which was overtaken by civil war in 1934. She described the day that fighting broke out near her home.
“Fraulen, Nora and I were sitting in our room,” she said. “Working on our birthday gifts for father, when suddenly there came rapid, explosive sounds from outside, like dry peas popping into a pot, only much louder, interrupted every so often by a louder boom.”
Following the lecture, attendees eagerly waited in line to have books, pieces of paper or anything else handy signed by a women so well honored for her contributions in the fields of history and women’s studies.
People who have already read “Fireweed” had great things to say.
“I’m very moved and inspired by her autobiography,” said Temple graduate candidate in Sociology Nadine Sullivan. “I think she is wonderful, and I am an admirer of her for moving women’s history forward.”
Gary Kramer, publicity manager of the Temple University Press, knew that having Lerner on campus was an honor for the University and the Temple Press.
“We are very exited to have Gerta here because she’s been a landmark in women’s history,” he said. “We were very pleased to acquire her book and publish it. It gave us tremendous review attention.”
Lerner is the Robinson-Edwards professor of history, Emerita, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also a former president of the Organization of American Historians, and in 2002 she became the first female recipient of the Bruce Catton Prize for lifetime achievement in the writing of history.
In addition to “Fireweed,” Dr. Lerner has written 11 other books, including: “The Grimke Sisters of South Carolina,” “The Creation of Feminist Consciousness” and “Why History Matters.”
For her autobiography, she had special intentions. “We need to learn about our positive past and let it help. For that I wrote this book,” she said. “This book tells my struggle to be an American writer.”
At the age of 84, Lerner says “Fireweed” will be her last book. But the work she has already accomplished will leave an everlasting impression.
Jonathan Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.