Inside the Thinking of One of the Early Pioneers Who Pinpointed the Oppression Facing Poor Women of Color

From JANE CROW: The Life of Pauli Murray by Rosalind Rosenberg. Copyright © 2017 by Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. Available from Amazon and IndieBound.


In the 1950s, Murray’s legal scholarship on race discrimination encouraged Thurgood Marshall to shift course and attack segregation directly as a violation of equal protection in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In the 1960s, her attacks on the federal government for failing to protect women against gender discrimination persuaded Betty Friedan to join her in founding a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for women, which Friedan named NOW (National Organization for Women). In the early 1970s, Murray’s concept of Jane Crow—the depiction of gender discrimination as analogous to race discrimination—propelled Ruth Bader Ginsburg to her first Supreme Court victory, establishing a woman’s constitutional right to equal protection in Reed v. Reed (1971). And in the late 1970s, Murray became the first black female Episcopal priest, in the process extending her critical thinking on race and gender to the realm of theology.

Murray accomplished all this while struggling with what we would today call a transgender identity. Since at least her childhood choice to wear boys’ clothes, Murray had felt “queer,” “in between,” outwardly female but inwardly male—a “boy-girl” in Aunt Pauline’s words. In some ways, her gender-nonconforming persona made it difficult to win the recognition she might otherwise have achieved, but it also made possible her most important insight: that gender was not, any more than race, a fixed category.

Fortunately for her biographer, Murray was a pack rat. At her death, she left to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College at Harvard University more than 135 boxes of diaries, interviews, scrapbooks, organizational minutes, papers, speeches, articles, poems, sermons, medical records, pictures, audiotapes, books, and letters (those received, as well as copies of those sent). These papers are remarkable not only for their breadth but also their depth. Murray kept detailed notes, for instance, on her conversations with doctors during her repeated hospitalizations for acute emotional distress. Murray also left early drafts of a family history, Proud Shoes (1956), and drafts of an autobiography, initially entitled “Jane Crow.” This title conveyed economically the external threat Murray faced from race and gender discrimination, as well as the internal conflict she experienced from these intersecting oppressions.

Orphaned at three, Murray viewed her pack-rat impulses, family history, and autobiography as a way to connect with her absent parents, as well as to understand what she enigmatically called “my confused world of uncertain boundaries.” In the process she developed a keen sense of her place in a civil rights movement that stretched back to the early nineteenth century. She belonged to people who mattered; people who stood for education, equality, and freedom; people who had made sacrifices to secure those rights for themselves and others. Their example inspired her to do the same and to detail the effort.

Murray’s personal papers reveal that her uncertainty over boundaries was rooted in more than her parents’ early deaths. She suspected from early childhood that she was really a boy. From at least the age of eight, she favored boys’ clothes, boys’ games, boys’ chores. In college, she cropped her hair. Then, days after her twentieth birthday, in an attempt to be a “normal woman,” she married on an impulse. The marriage lasted a weekend. Trying to understand why something in her fought against sexual relations with a man, Murray read every scientific book and article she could find on the science of sex. She concluded that she was a “pseudo-hermaphrodite.” Had she been born several generations later, she might have embraced a transgender identity. But in the 1930s, she had no such language, nor a social movement that would have supported her use of it. Instead, finding herself sexually attracted to feminine, heterosexual women, she suffered recurring nervous breakdowns when the objects of her affection could not accept her as the heterosexual male she felt herself to be. She begged doctors for hormones to give her a more masculine voice and appearance. They refused. About to undergo an appendectomy, she asked a surgeon to search for “secreted male genitals.” He found none. She worried about her mental health. So did the doctors. One pronounced her schizophrenic. Her gender troubles sometimes immobilized her; they often put off those who might have helped her. Ultimately, they inspired insights that were to change her life and the lives of others.

In the 1950s, around the age of forty-five, Murray ceased her medical campaign, even as hormones and sex-change surgery began to be available. She had come to see her trouble with “boundaries,” her sense of herself as “queer,” as strengths, qualities that allowed her to understand gender and race not as fixed categories, but rather as unreasonable classifications. A series of experiences facilitated this change: an operation for a hyperthyroid condition, which had long amplified her emotional turmoil; the psychotherapy she undertook to help her write her family history; the beginning of professional success, first as a writer, then as a lawyer; a deepening of her Episcopal faith, which convinced her that God had placed her in the middle to be useful to others; and, most important, the love and acceptance of a woman, Irene Barlow. No longer did Murray believe that one had to be either female or male; one could be both, a person in between, more male than female perhaps, but with qualities of both. The two decades that followed proved to be her most productive.

Murray’s experience of race and class reinforced her skepticism about the boundaries most people took for granted. She once wrote of her “inability to be fragmented into Negro at one time, woman at another, or worker at another.” She experienced her gender, race, and class as so interconnected that her feeling of in-betweenness in one reinforced that feeling about the others. Born into a mixed-race southern family, and raised by a grandmother and aunts who could have passed for white, she attended school with children darker than she. Her grandmother admonished her to comb her hair and stay out of the sun so as not to look “niggerish.” Her black classmates taunted her as “You half-white bastard! You dirty-faced Jew baby! Black is honest! Yaller is dishonest!” Throughout her childhood and into the first couple of years of college, race preoccupied Murray more than class, but with the onset of the Great Depression class came to the fore.

Class had always been there in the background, intertwined with her mixed racial heritage. Murray descended from what she called a “Euro-African-American” mix of white, anti-slavery Quakers; Episcopalian slave owners; mixed-race slaves; freedmen farmers; and Cherokee Indians. Her family, though poor, taught her that she belonged to a proud, respectable, educated elite. Growing up within an ever more restrictive system of Jim Crow, in North Carolina, Murray learned that she also belonged to society’s lowest caste. At fifteen, she fled to New York.

Murray worked her way through Hunter College, embraced radical politics, and joined the labor movement. Class led back to race, as her radical training and identification with beleaguered workers during the Depression inspired her to join the civil rights movement twenty years before most whites recognized that the struggle existed. In 1938 she applied to graduate school in sociology at the University of North Carolina, where one of her white great-great-grandfathers had been a trustee. The university denied her application on account of race. Two years later she challenged, without success, race discrimination in public transportation in Virginia. That same year, with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, she entered a two-year campaign to save the life of a Virginia sharecropper, Odell Waller, who was on death row. He was executed despite their efforts. In 1941, these defeats drove Murray to Howard Law School, where she hoped to accomplish as a civil rights lawyer what she had failed to achieve as an activist. Not that she abandoned her organizing efforts altogether. In her second year of law school, she led the first successful restaurant sit-in in Washington, DC, two decades before sit-ins would spread across the South.

Murray graduated from Howard Law School in 1944, first in her class and the only woman. Her senior seminar paper, “Should the Civil Rights Cases and Plessy v. Ferguson Be Overturned?” laid out a strategy to strike down segregation as a violation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. Her classmates laughed when she first advanced her argument. At a time when litigators believed that the most they could achieve was to make segregated facilities more equal, her proposal seemed radical, even reckless. And yet, just a few years later, Thurgood Marshall’s team used her paper as they prepared to argue Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Race led back to gender. Belittled from her first day at Howard, Murray coined the term Jane Crow to stand for the double discrimination she faced as a black female. Two decades would pass before she put this concept to practical use, for it took that long to win the professional recognition she needed to take the next step. She did so in 1962, when Eleanor Roosevelt asked her to serve on John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW). Roosevelt hoped that Murray’s background in civil rights and labor, as well as law, would enable her to break a deadlock in the women’s movement, between those who supported an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and others who feared that the ERA would invalidate protective labor laws for women workers. Murray persuaded the commissioners that a tailored litigation strategy under the Fourteenth Amendment offered a more realistic path to equal rights for women than could the ERA. She added that such a strategy need not jeopardize protective labor laws. Arguing that sex was analogous to race, Murray proposed that lawyers follow the same approach that had been used in Brown to overturn laws that discriminated against women. She recommended an attack on discrimination against women on juries, for example, and maintaining maximum-hour, minimum-wage, and other laws for women that she believed to help even out the playing field between male and female workers.

The commissioners agreed. So did American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorneys, who asked Murray to work with them on the Alabama juror-selection case, White v. Crook, which they won in federal court in 1966. That same year Murray persuaded Betty Friedan to help her found NOW. Building on these legal and organizational achievements, Ruth Bader Ginsburg persuaded the Supreme Court in 1971, in the estate-executor case Reed v. Reed, that sex discrimination violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Acknowledging her debt to Pauli Murray, Ginsburg put her name on the brief.

As Murray challenged the supposedly fixed boundaries of race and gender, she continued to worry about class, specifically the impact of her proposed reforms on working-class women, the poorest of whom were black. In addition to her work on the PCSW, Murray played a key role in adding “sex” to Title VII in 1964. She argued that women could attain equality in hiring and promotions without losing the laws that shielded them for exploitation from employers. In the case of conflict, she predicted, courts would require that protections in place for women be extended to cover men. In this she proved naïve. Within a decade, protective labor laws would vanish in the United States, just as black women were finally breaking into the service industries the laws had covered. To Murray’s dismay, victory against Jane Crow succeeded for professional but not for working-class women, especially women of color.

In 1970, Murray wrote, “If anyone should ask a Negro woman in America what has been her greatest achievement, her honest answer would be, ‘I survived!’ ” In many ways her own survival was her most remarkable achievement, and it bound her in her final years to assist poor black women. In 1973, following the death of Irene Barlow, Murray abruptly left a chaired, tenured professorship at Brandeis University—a position she had fought hard to achieve and had held for only two years—to enter divinity school. In her writings and sermons, she reinterpreted biblical writings to show, through the stories of Eve, Hagar, and Mary, an alternative to the traditionally patriarchal readings of those texts. In the process, she laid the foundation for what would become known as Womanist Theology, a theology attentive not only to the struggles of women of color but also to the poorest among them.

Becoming one of the first female Episcopal priests, and the first black female priest, in 1977, Murray achieved some celebrity but no regular employment. She worked as a supply priest, filling in for others from time to time. She volunteered at a nursing home for black women. She preached widely, broadening her mission as she did so to include a search for racial reconciliation and the celebration of diversity in all its forms. She used her identity as someone in between, someone who had trouble with “boundaries,” to serve as a bridge between white and black, male and female, rich and poor, believer and materialist, and to fight for the acceptance of all people society denigrated as different.

Many LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning) activists have claimed Murray as an icon, but Murray was extremely guarded in her public—and for the most part her private—comments about her gender identity and sexual orientation. Some of those closest to her were astonished to learn, long after her death, that some believed she was a butch lesbian or a trans man. Although a pioneering leader in both the civil rights and feminist movements, Murray insisted to the end of her life that nontraditional gender identity and sexual orientation were private matters that should be protected as part of the campaign for human rights, not used for the purposes of separate organizing efforts. She never joined the Daughters of Bilitis, worried with Betty Friedan that radical lesbians within NOW might destroy the nascent organization, and kept identification of what she called her “boy-girl,” “pixie,” “imp” self from all but a very few intimates.

The closest she came to a public announcement of her gender identity was through her dress and the name she adopted in college. Rejecting “Anna Pauline Murray,” the name on her birth certificate that identified her as female, she chose instead the gender-ambiguous Pauli Murray. Under that name she challenged all of the boundaries that shackled her from birth, as a poor, black, female person—labels that had long deemed her and those like her unworthy of human rights.

Excerpted from Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray by Rosalind Rosenberg (Oxford University Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Oxford University Press. Available from Amazon and IndieBound.

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