Gerda Lerner: Her Vision

My life has been marked by breaks and discontinuities – abrupt fissures; destruction, loss and new beginnings. I am a survivor of terror and persecution; I have changed cultures and languages, nationality and class. I’m an outsider as a woman, a Jew, an immigrant, and a radical. I have also been a successful insider, an institution-builder and a respected member of my profession. My various transformations have been driven by necessity, imposed by outside events, yet they have been counter-balanced by certain lifelong continuities: my work as a creative writer, my pervasive preoccupation with historical events and the shaping of history, my deep commitment to social action and to responsibility to the public sphere, and my lifelong focus on the condition of women in society. I have tried to bridge the gap between theory and practice, between action and thought. I have tried to find the right balance between the life of the mind and what people call ‘real’ life, the life in social context.’ (based Gerda Lerner’s Charles Homer Haskins Lecture, 2005)
The system of patriarchy is a historic construct; it has a beginning; it will have an end. Its time seems to have nearly run its course – it no longer serves the needs of men or women…. What will come after, what kind of structure will be the foundation for alternate forms of social organization we cannot yet know. We are living in an age of unprecedented transformation. We are in the process of becoming. But we already know that woman’s mind, at last unfettered after so many millennia, will have its share in providing vision, ordering, solutions. Women at long last are demanding, as men did in the Renaissance, the right to explain, the right to define. Women, in thinking themselves out of patriarchy add transforming insights to the process of redefinition.
What are patriarchal values? Simply, the assumption that the fact of biological sex differences implies a God-given or at least a ‘natural’ separation of human activities by sex, and the further assumption that this leads to a ‘natural’ dominance of male over female.
Abandoning the search for an empowering past – the search for matriarchy – is one step in the right direction. The creation of compensatory myths of the distant past of women will not emancipate women in the present and the future.
Women have always made history as much as men have, not ‘contributed’ to it, only they did not know what they had made and had no tools to interpret their own experience. What’s new at this time is that women are fully claiming their past and shaping the tools by means of which they can interpret it. We can learn from history how past generations thought and acted, how they responded to the demands of their time and how they solved their problems.
We can learn by analogy, not by example, for our circumstances will always be different than theirs were. The main thing history can teach us is that human actions have consequences and that certain choices, once made, cannot be undone. They foreclose the possibility of making other choices and thus they determine future events.
What we do about history matters. The often repeated saying that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them has a lot of truth in it. But what are ‘the lessons of history’? The very attempt at definition furnishes ground for new conflicts. History is not a recipe book; past events are never replicated in the present in quite the same way. Historical events are infinitely variable and their interpretations are a constantly shifting process. There are no certainties to be found in the past.