Why history matters : life and thought /

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Main Author: Lerner, Gerda, 1920-
Format: Book
Published:New York : Oxford University Press, 1997.
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Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Now 76, Lerner is one of the founders of the academic discipline of women's history, an emerita professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison; and author of such key books as The Majority Finds Its Past, The Creation of Patriarchy and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness. In the dozen essays included here (half previously unpublished), Lerner masters her subjects, basing any generalizations on an impressive array of statistics or on personal experience. A frequent theme is Lerner's experience of being driven out of prewar Vienna as a Jew; a visit to Munich in recent years left her feeling "nauseated and defiled" after a chat with a typical Bavarian barfly who still believed in most of Hitler's tenets. The title of Lerner's book has a parallel to George Santayana's famous saying that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it: Lerner finds that "Civil wars and racist persecutions thrive on selective memory and collective forgetting." Hence her horror at seeing a swastika smeared on her university office door. Lerner's words are alive and timely, especially when she points out that the supposed advances made by women in the 20th century have been "grossly uneven" and even have a "nasty edge," concluding that most women across the world live under conditions "as bad or worse" than in 1900-a contention she backs up with impressive documentation on life expectancy, infant mortality, career achievement and more. Now more than ever, readers of history need such lucid critical minds as Lerner's, and this collection is therefore especially welcome. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

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.

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