This Is New York: Judy Lerner, on Changing the World at 92
NEW YORK—Judy Lerner recalled her undergraduate years at Hunter College in the ’40s, when she met her lifelong friend—the former U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug. Abzug taught her how to wear eyeliner and how to lobby—both of which Lerner still does today at age 92.
The two women’s first conversation was a pithy argument. Lerner was running for class president. Abzug was a year ahead of her, and called her something along the lines of a “crazy girl with a crazy sign.”
Lerner’s slogan was “Don’t Be Snooty, Vote for Judy.” She won.
“I shouted at Bella, ‘You don’t know anything about me and my politics,’” Lerner recalled. “But we became very, very close. She was a mentor for me, the reason why I’m at the U.N. now.”
Today, Lerner is hearing impaired and walks with a cane. But that didn’t stop her from getting elected to join the executive committee to represent 1,400 NGOs at the United Nations. “When I found out I was elected I said, ‘I have to stay alive for two more years,’” she said and guffawed.
Lerner is in that position for good reasons. No one else has a civil rights background quite like hers.
In her lifetime she has protested in Cuba, Nairobi, China, and Vietnam during historic turning points. During the nuclear scare in the ’60s, she stuck a sign on her front lawn that read: “This house has no shelter. Peace is our only shelter.’’
“My children were so embarrassed by the sign they asked me to take it down, but I wouldn’t,” she said. “They were teased at school,” she said before bellowing out a laugh.
Lerner lives alone in a meticulously clean apartment, decorated with Asian paintings, floral-upholstered couches, and a Ben Shahn painting of Gandhi. It’s a few blocks away from the U.N., where she goes every week for NGO briefings on issues from disability rights to the Palestinian–Israeli negotiations.
“My philosophy on life is that it has to have a purpose,” Lerner said. “When you see things that need to be done better, make sure you do them.”
During the prime of her activism, Lerner was married with three children and a full time teacher.
She was a responsible mother and wife, but she still found time to stand up for humanity.
At the height of nuclear testing in 1961, Lerner and five women founded the Women’s Strike for Peace.
In 1969, 13 women from their organization tried to harmonize relations by going to Cuba. They “threw a fit” at the airport to try to avoid getting a Cuban stamp on their passports.
It was an elaborate plan. The 13 women returned to the United States in separate planes from different locations.
Lerner returned to the United States from Spain, but was still stopped and interrogated.
She left the airport without any problems because she had talked to a lawyer beforehand who confirmed she had the right to travel to Cuba at the time.
In 1971, she was invited to go to Vietnam as a peace woman. Jane Fonda had gone the year before.
During the Vietnam War, Lerner and three other middle-class women chained themselves to the gate of the White House to protest. She hid her key in her brassiere. “I must have called in sick at school,” she said.
Along with Hilary Clinton and Abzug, Lerner went to China for the Women’s conference in 1995.
“I thought, things have changed haven’t they? The genie is out of the bottle. You can start any company you want. People talk freely on cellphones,” she said. “But a friend in China told me the genie is out of the bottle on everything but human rights.”
A ‘New Life’ After Nine Decades
“All of those things that have happened to me have only made me stronger in my belief that I have to constantly fight for human rights, women’s rights, and peace,” she said. “And to suddenly find myself at the U.N. in the last part of my life, it’s really kind of wonderful.”
For nine years, she has been the chair of the International Committee of Peace Action, and NGO with the U.N.
After she spoke before 200 women at the U.N. recently, many people were moved to tears. Her speech was about how young women need to have mentors who think highly of them.
“Until I got up there, I had no idea what I was going to say,” she said. At the moment, she felt it was natural to talk about her mentors. The earliest one is her mother.
Lerner was born and raised in the Bronx. Yiddish was her only language until she went to school at age 7. Her father was an immigrant from Austria, her mother from Russia.
“My mother was an illiterate immigrant, but she was so smart,” Lerner said. “She would always make me feel I could do anything.”
At Hunter College, Lerner studied economics. Late nights she wrote essays on the history of economics. On one occasion, her mother asked her to read one of her essays that received a good mark.
“She did not understand a word of it,” Lerner recalled. “But I never forgot that incident because for her the most important thing was for me to become something.”
Lerner said she is a person who has the strength to deal with pain and the unhappy events of life, and that is largely attributed to the support from her mother during her youth.
Lerner’s son recommended a therapist for her in her old age. But she became good friends with her therapist. She often went to see her to talk about their similar views on war, peace, and justice. “I ran out of things to tell her,” she said.
When her husband passed away 22 years ago, she felt strong enough to deal with her loss without having to discuss it with a therapist.
Oct. 13 would have been the 65th anniversary with her late husband, Irving Lerner. He was a businessman with a chain of women’s clothing stores called Mary Lerner.
Their first date was at Gene’s restaurant in Greenwich Village. “I must have looked pretty good that night,” she said. “And he was so bright.”
They talked about new books, and went to see a play after dinner. After the show, he took her to the Russian Tea Room.
“Then he drove me home because he had a car. That was another thing, it was 1948 and he had a car!” she said.
He proposed three weeks later on the Staten Island Ferry and she said “Yes.” They were together for over 40 years. “Marry a feminist, that’s the secret,” she said. “He gave me space, and I gave him his.”
During the latter stage of his life, he was sick for several years with lymphoma cancer.
The night it became apparent he would pass, Lerner called their doctor.
“He said, ‘Judy, let him go.’ It was the hardest and best thing anybody ever said,” she said. “But he got to die where he wanted to, at home, looking at the garden with a couple of kids in tow.”
“That’s a hard thing for a spouse. I used to say that I could breathe life into him. But there’s a certain point when you can’t,” she said.
Her husband passed in 1991. Sometimes Lerner feels lonely, but she finds solace visiting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA.
“How did I cope? You do, you just do,” she said. “I fill myself with lots of things and I’ve had other men in my life since then.”
“Don’t let yourself get unhappy because of what you feel. Make sure you deal with those unpleasant things and make them better,” she said. “Never stop reading, writing, or interacting with people.”
“Don’t allow yourself to be isolated,” she said. “That’s what I’m telling you now at the tail end of my life.”
— Amelia Pang (@ameliapang29) October 15, 2013