Why Pauli Murray, Why Now?

Pauli Murray at Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1931. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPauli Murray at Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1931. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
April 18, 2017
By Pat Harrison

A civil rights activist, attorney, and Episcopal priest who was born in 1910 and died in 1985, Pauli Murray was much acclaimed during her lifetime for breaking through barriers against the full inclusion of women and African Americans in our institutions. A cofounder of the National Organization for Women, the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in law at Yale Law School (after Harvard Law School rejected her because of her gender), the first African American woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest, it was she who coined the term “Jane Crow” for the discrimination that black women endured.

Now, like James Baldwin—an acquaintance of Murray’s—she has returned to public awareness, no doubt because her life and work are still relevant.

On April 24, the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library will host a panel discussion, “Rediscovering Pauli Murray,” featuring three scholars who have recently written about Murray, each in very different ways. All three have used the Schlesinger’s Papers of Pauli Murray, a vast resource of audiotapes, correspondence, legal briefs, photographs, sermons, and speeches. It is one of the library’s most popular collections.

Pauli Murray, ca. 1925-1935. Radcliffe Institute Schlesinger LibraryPauli Murray, ca. 1925-1935. Radcliffe Institute Schlesinger Library

Patricia Bell-Scott, a professor emerita of women’s studies and human development and family science at the University of Georgia, is the author of The Firebrand and the First Lady: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), which the New York Times Book Review described as “a tremendous book that has been 20 years in the making.” Bell-Scott says Murray’s “commitment to dialogue and her rigorous inquiry have inspired me and successive generations of scholar-activists. It will be an honor to be among the panelists at Schlesinger Library event.”

The panelist Brittney C. Cooper, an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University and a cofounder of the Crunk Feminist Collective, includes a chapter on Murray in her book Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (University of Illinois Press, 2017), setting Murray’s life and work in dialogue with other path-breaking black feminists, from Anna Julia Cooper to Alice Walker.

The third panelist is Rosalind Rosenberg, a professor emerita of history at Barnard College, who has written the first cradle-to-grave biography of Murray, titled Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray (Oxford University Press, 2017). A starred review in Publishers Weekly notes that Rosenberg “shows how Murray pursued an intersectional activism, repeatedly identifying the ways in which race, class, and gender worked together to constrain opportunity.”

The facts about Murray’s sexuality and gender identity—she was a lesbian who felt from childhood that she was meant to be a boy—were not well known during her lifetime. She had fulfilling relationships with women, but she suffered mightily from depression and anxiety and was hospitalized several times. Were she alive now, she might well be leading the fight for transgender rights, which may be one reason her story speaks to today.

Pauli Murray. February, 1981. Photo by Susan Mullally Weil, courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPauli Murray. February, 1981. Photo by Susan Mullally Weil, courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Rosenberg says Murray’s life is especially pertinent today. “At a time when LGBTQ rights are denied, when our most vulnerable neighbors risk losing basic health care, when voters’ rights are undercut, and when our government attempts to hide religious and racial intolerance behind a mask of national security, the life of Pauli Murray takes on special relevance. A feminist and civil rights pioneer, Murray faced every one of these current assaults on personal well-being and in reaction helped craft today’s most effective legal and organizational protections against them.”

The panel will be moderated by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard. Kenneth W. Mack, the Lawrence D. Biele Professor of Law and the 2016–2017 Frances B. Cashin Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, will offer a brief response to the presentations.

This event is free and open to the public. It will also be videotaped and shared online so that awareness about Pauli Murray’s identity and impact continues to grow.

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