— When mentors die and new ones fly high

January 12, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Posted in Online Ministry | Leave a comment
Gerda Lerner, b.1920 d. 2013

Gerda Lerner, b.1920 d. 2013

I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.– Dorothy Day, 1897 – 1980

Too many deaths ended 2012 and also announced 2013 for our country but also for me.  I mourn the death of Dr. Gerda Lerner, whose influence on my life was tectonic as it was for so many women and men. I studied women’s history with Gerda in the early 1980s when she was in her 60s; 40 years after she survived the holocaust;  25 years after she wrote major works on abolitionism and black women’s history and one year after she established the first doctoral program in Women’s History. The import of Gerda’s work has been  the paradigm shift in how history is approached and what it tells us about the here and now.

When Gerda was in her 70s, she wrote the books The Creation of Patriarchy and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness. Passages throughout the patriarchy book discussed the relationship between of the evolution of religion and patriarchy in Western society.

Gerda died at age 92 on Jan. 2 in an assisted living facility in Madison, Wisconsin. The New York Times obit and an Associate Press account  reveal the depth of her character, contribution, compassion and courage.

She also could be very intense, aggressive and difficult. She angered my fellow students, the first of many generations to come of graduate students in Women’s History. She felt radical lesbian activists detracted from feminism. She didn’t get along well with professors in the women’s studies program who ignored her too. I suspect she felt they were sloppy thinkers. She insisted that Women’s History be housed and run out of accredited departments and thus in the mainstream of academic life.

Scores of Gerda’s students left her, venturing into the working world grounded with a confidence that enabled us to invent; to be bold and to lead.  I traced my seven patents back to her and told her so in a letter. My mother attributed aspects of my success to Gerda as well when she autographed a copy of “The Creation of Patriarchy” for mom at a bookstore.

Gerda never gave up the good fight. At times I’m sure she wondered if her students had, as they aged and faced whatever life threw at them. The unrelenting attack on Roe v. Wade and the losses that have ensued were probably major disappointments for her. And yet, she lived to see a black man in the White House.

In Black Women in White America, Gerda published letters and writings by black women throughout American history.  It is now a required reading in many history classes throughout the country.  Her work on the history of black Americans included writing the screenplay for the the book,  Black Like Me. 

Gerda also lived to see a new generation of 20 something women fighting as hard as she had. My inspirational niece Stephanie is a leader among these young women activists on the bleeding edge of Reproductive Justice. They feel that the generation that won Roe v. Wade screwed up royally. And they’re enraged at the Pro-Choice establishment because it hasn’t listened to them and accepted them for who they are.

My Inspirational Niece

My Inspirational Niece

Steph, like Gerda, has given voice to untold women whose stories have been ignored. Through her tweets and social media postings after the death of abortion provider, Dr. George  Tiller, she’s galvanized hundreds of thousands of reproductive health professionals and young women nationwide. She and her counterparts aren’t waiting for the established pro-choice lobby to listen to them. They’ve  radicalize a new generation and revitalize those who’ve become complacent. And this example is just one among many that represent the impact that Steph’s work as had.

She has impacted the lives of millions of women and men. Her work (which is to me a form of ministry, a term I don’t think she’d use at all) has only just begun. She’s mad as hell and living the change she wants to see in the world. And she says as much in the cover story of the current, Jan. 11, 2013 issue of Time magazine.

I see for the first time a likeness to Steph’s face in the photo Gerda in this blog post. Gerda would have respected Stephanie for her disciplined mind, unrelenting passion for justice and so much more.

I’ve written a poem about Gerda and about Steph.The poem is an ode to these forces of nature whose life work can’t be stopped.

The poem alludes to a number of Gerda’s writings. I love you Gerda. I love you Steph.

Poem: “When mentors die and new ones fly high”

Patriarchy dies when women demystify

Truth rains down

and drowns tunnel vision

When women demystify

Euphemisms die, false loves lie

When a woman demystifies

The  past scatters, history matters

When a woman demystifies

Patriarchy revives, when women mystify

New winds rise as wins dematerialize

When women mystify

The present erupts, more women grow up

Forces rise and deaf ears marginalize

When mainstreamed women mystify

Patriarchy revives, so count the cost

The battle rages on, the field’s not lost

When young women demystify

©2013 June R. Herold

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