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Why History Matters: Life and Thought

Why History Matters: Life and Thought
Author: Gerda Lerner
ISBN 13: 9780195122893
ISBN 10: 195122895
Edition: N/A
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 1998-02-26
Format: Paperback
Pages: 272
List Price: $34.99

"All human beings are practicing historians," writes Gerda Lerner. "We live our lives; we tell our stories. It is as natural as breathing." It is as important as breathing, too. History shapes our self-definition and our relationship to community; it locates us in time and place and helps to give meaning to our lives. History can be the vital thread that holds a nation together, as demonstrated most strikingly in the case of Jewish history. Conversely, for women, who have lived in a world in which they apparently had no history, its absence can be devastating. In Why History Matters, Lerner brings together her thinking and research of the last sixteen years, combining personal reminiscences with innovative theory that illuminate the importance of history and the vital role women have played in it.
Why History Matters contains some of the most significant thinking and writing on history that Lerner has done in her entire career—a summation of her life and work. The chapters are divided into three sections, each widely different from the others, each revelatory of Lerner as a woman and a feminist. We read first of Lerner's coming to consciousness as a Jewish woman. There are moving accounts of her early life as a refugee in America, her return to Austria fifty years after fleeing the Nazis (to discover a nation remarkable both for the absence of Jews and for the anti-Semitism just below the surface), her slow assimilation into American life, and her decision to be a historian. If the first section is personal, the second focuses on more professional concerns. Included here is a fascinating essay on nonviolent resistance, tracing the idea from the Quakers (such as Mary Dyer), to abolitionists such as Theodore Dwight Weld (the "most mobbed man" in America), to Thoreau's essay Civil Disobedience, then across the sea to Tolstoy and Gandhi, before finally returning to America during the civil rights movement of the 1950s. There are insightful essays on "American Values" and on the tremendous advances women have made in the twentieth century, as well as Lerner's presidential address to the Organization of American Historians, which outlines the contributions of women to the field of history and the growing importance of women as a subject of history. The highlight of the final section of the book is Lerner's bold and innovative look at the issues of class and race as they relate to women, an essay that distills her thinking on these difficult subjects and offers a coherent conceptual framework that will prove of lasting interest to historians and intellectuals.
A major figure in women's studies and long-term activist for women's issues, a founding member of NOW and a past president of the Organization of American Historians, Gerda Lerner is a pioneer in the field of Women's History and one of its leading practitioners. Why History Matters is the summation of the work and thinking of this distinguished historian.

Kirkus Reviews

Despite its somewhat grandiose title, this isn't in any way a comprehensive approach to the vital question posed, but a collection of speeches and articles that offer only a glimpse of the author's important contributions to historical inquiry.

Lerner (The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, 1993; Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison) is a fascinating woman, and some of her extraordinary experiences are revealed here in the portion of the book called "Life." An Austrian Jew, Lerner escaped from the Nazis and emigrated to America at age 18. Once here, she determined to be a writer and set about gaining a proficiency in English the likes of which few native-born Americans can boast. But Lerner didn't stop there. At the age of 40, she returned to school to get a graduate degree in history—and not conventional history, but women's history, an area of study that she helped define. In another section, called "Thought," Lerner discusses the field of women's history a little, but these essays, collected from her writings and lectures of the past few years are limited in scope and often repetitive. (For instance, we hear many times that women cannot be treated as a single, unified category because they come from all classes, races, and religions.) This is not to say that Lerner offers nothing of value. For example, her discussions of how to put women into the history curriculum without making them seem inferior to men are perceptive and thoughtful, as is her attempt to redefine race and class in terms of gender.

Even here Lerner has much to offer students of history, but from a scholar of her stature, this jumble of essays is a disappointment.