Gerda Lerner’s accomplishments and contributions to the field of women’s history have been fundamental to its development. Her many works include The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition (1998), The Woman in American History (1971 textbook), The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (1979), Why History Matters (1997), and numerous other significant essays and texts that have helped direct the study of American, women’s and global history.
Lerner has offered scholars a guide to and definition of the field of women’s history. In her essay “Placing Women in History,” Lerner explains the evolution of the investigation of women’s pasts and how it has progressed from a focus on the historical narrative to one that concentrates on theory and interpretation. The “Compensatory Stage” in which notable women are identified acknowledges those ignored by scholars, but fails to reveal the role of women within the greater historical narrative. “Contribution History,” which acknowledges women’s roles in social development moves closer to a more complete historical analysis. In the third stage, scholars revisit the general history of a particular period or movement and examine the differing experiences of men and women. The fourth phase, she explains, is an examination of the process of interpretation that occurs in the third phase. Historians seek an understanding of how and why gender dictates meaning and experience for individuals and groups.
Gerda Lerner’s groundbreaking efforts and theories in the field of American history have helped to advance the study of history in the second half of the 20th century. By demanding that attention be paid to the study of women’s roles, contributions, and experiences in society, she has contributed to the successes of the feminist movement, the struggle for gender and racial equality in the United States, and the diversification and development of historical research.