Gerda Lerner, who was one of the founders of the National Organization for Women, died of apparent old age on Wednesday. She was 92 years old.
Lerner lived through the Nazi occupation after growing up in a well-to-do Jewish family in Austria, but was imprisoned at the age of 18. The time she spent in jail was invaluable, she said, because she learned so much from the women she shared a cell with.
‘‘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.’’
Lerner once said that the entire time period taught her much about how manipulative people are with one another and led to her strong opinions on the teaching of women in history, something which simply wasn’t done in those days. Gender equality became a focal point for her, and when she became a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, she created the first graduate program based on women’s history in the country. Despite the accolades she won from some, there were still others who formed the old-school way of thinking, who would have her and other women believe that their own ancestors weren’t worth learning about.
‘‘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,” she said of refusing to accept it.
Her convictions, and the way she taught others to look beyond what they were being told, made her an icon in the eyes of everyone who knew her. She will be fondly remembered by students and friends, even if some of them found her “difficult” in the classroom at first; she refused to let anyone not live up to their potential, and while that may have proved frustrating for some, her students realized in the end how far she’d taken them.
“She was always a very strong-willed and opinionated woman,” her son, Dan Lerner, said. “I think those are the hallmarks of great people, people that have strong points of view and firmly held convictions.”