Patriarchy took toll on women and Jews, scholar says

For women, it started with the creation of patriarchy in the middle of the first millennium BCE. For Jews it began in Egypt in the latter part of the second millennium BCE.

But women and Jews reacted differently to the oppression, Lerner said. Jews recorded their history and thus retained their sense of self. Women did not.

The contrasting experiences of Jews and women show why people must know the story of their past, Lerner writes in her latest book.

"Why History Matters: Life and Thought" is an eclectic collection of 12 essays about history, both collective and personal.

Lerner, one of the founders of the study of women's history, identifies as a Jew for the first time in her historical writing. She weaves in stories about her childhood in Vienna, fleeing Nazi-overrun Austria, her experiences as an immigrant, her life as an academic and her return to Germany and Austria 50 years after her escape.

Professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Lerner also comments on feminism, women's advances in the 20th century and class and race as they relate to women.

Interviewed during a recent visit to San Francisco for her book tour and a historians' conference, Lerner blamed patriarchy for oppressing both women and Jews. "The system needs groups it can target or it cannot build hierarchies," she said.

Jews, however, didn't fall victim because they believed they were God's Chosen People. They knew their existence and history had a purpose — to uphold their covenant with God.

"What makes Jews `Jews' is their historically developed experience," Lerner writes.

Even after Jews were banished from Eretz Yisrael, their system of creating and studying an oral tradition allowed them to maintain their own history. As a historian, Lerner considers the Oral Law one of the great advances after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

As a result, Jews — men in particular — knew they were "special, had heroes and resisted oppression," she said. Their enemies or oppressors could conquer them in a physical sense but they could never conquer their minds.

"Jews survived by developing internal pride," she said.

Jewish holidays, such as Passover, Purim and Chanukah, likewise incorporated powerful historical stories.

Women, both Jewish and non-Jewish, lacked these same tools and thus internalized their oppression.

"Women have lived in a world where they apparently had no history and in which their share in the building of society and civilizations was constantly marginalized," Lerner writes. "Denied any knowledge of their history, women were also denied heroines and role models."

This is the first time in a three-decade career that Lerner has detailed her theories about Jews in comparison to women. Though she never denied her Jewish heritage, Lerner did her best to assimilate in America and forget her past.

"Like most refugees and Holocaust survivors, we don't want to deal with the subject," she said.

But a key event in the late 1980s transformed her. Lerner knew of many faculty members who were openly Jewish, had distinctive Jewish names or who taught Jewish studies courses. Yet Lerner became the target of an anti-Semite who painted a swastika on her office door.

"It really shook me up," she said. "That sort of prompted me to say: `Here it is again. Back to square one.'"

She then began to write about her personal and collective Jewish past.

Though she has spent much of her life recording history and her new book is partly autobiographical, Lerner isn't completely comfortable talking about her own life.

She won't reveal her exact age, though biographical material shows her to be in her late 70s. She similarly won't discuss her theological beliefs even though her book details her shift to atheism as a girl.

Still, the details of her life that do surface reveal a woman who constantly transformed and pushed herself.

After the Nazis flooded Austria, she was the only family member able obtain a visa to the United States. Lerner came here alone as a teen in 1939. Some family survived; others perished in the Holocaust.

At age 38, this wife and mother of two decided to enroll in college. She earned a bachelor's degree in history in the early 1960s, and her doctorate three years later at Columbia University.

Then she began to change history itself. She decided to delve into the history beyond the kingdoms, revolutions and doctrines created by men. Though now an established area of study, "women's history" was an unabashedly radical concept in the 1960s.

As a historian, she has written more than a dozen books including "Black Women in White America," "The Creation of Patriarchy" and "The Creation of Feminist Consciousness."

Lerner believes deeply in the significance of studying one's own history.

Yet, like Lerner, most of the Jewish women who chose to pursue women's history didn't choose to study their own heritage. Lerner, for example, focused on black women in America. She now sees the need for change.

"I would urge Jewish women to take up the study of Jewish history," she said, "and begin to take back their heroines."