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Women's history pioneer Gerda Lerner dies at 92

University Of Wisconsin-Madison / Reuters

Gerda Lerner founded the women's studies program at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, which in 1972 became the first to offer a graduate degree in women's history.

MILWAUKEE -- Gerda Lerner, a pioneer in the field of women's history and a founding member of the National Organization for Women, has died. She was 92.

Credited with founding the nation's first graduate program in women's history, Lerner died peacefully Wednesday at an assisted-living facility in Madison, Wis., her son said.

"She was always a very strong-willed and opinionated woman," Dan Lerner recalled. "I think those are the hallmarks of great people, people that have strong points of view and firmly held convictions."

The former professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote several books in the field of women's history, including her 1986 work "The Creation of Patriarchy" and her 1994 volume "The Creation of Feminist Consciousness." She also edited "Black Women in White America," one of the first books to document the struggles and contributions of black women in American history.

After obtaining her doctorate at New York's Columbia University in 1966, Lerner went on to found the women's studies program at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, which in 1972 became the first to offer a graduate degree in women's history.

Lerner later moved to Madison, where she helped establish a doctoral program in women's history at the University of Wisconsin.

Imprisoned by Nazis
She was born into a privileged Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, in 1920. When the Nazis rose to power, she was imprisoned and spent her 18th birthday behind bars, in a cell with two other young women who had been arrested for political work. Jailers restricted rations for Jews, but the gentile women shared their food with her.

"They taught me how to survive," Lerner wrote in "Fireweed: a Political Autobiography." "Everything I needed to get through the rest of my life I learned in jail in those six weeks."

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She said the experience taught her how society can manipulate people. It was a lesson she saw reinforced in American academia by history professors who taught as though the only figures worth studying were men.

"When I was faced with noticing that half the population has no history, and I was told that that's normal, I was able to resist the pressure" to accept that conclusion, she told the Wisconsin Academic Review in 2002.

After arriving in the United States from Europe, she married filmmaker Carl Lerner and collaborated with him in writing the 1964 civil rights-era film "Black Like Me," based on the 1961 best-selling book by John Howard Griffin.

The couple were involved in activism that ranged from attempting to unionize the film industry to working in the civil rights movement.

Carl Lerner died in 1973, and Gerda Lerner moved in 1980 to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she established a doctorate program in women's history. She retired from the university in 1991.

When asked how she developed such a strong sense of justice and fairness, she told the Wisconsin Academy Review that the feeling started in childhood. She recalled watching her mother drop items on the floor and walk away, leaving servants to clean up her mess.

"I wanted the world to be a just and fair place, and it obviously wasn't — and that disturbed me right from the beginning," she said.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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