In her 1978 autobiographical family history, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, Pauli Murray writes about the role of the women from the pre-Civil War and Reconstruction eras who “were not conscious feminists, but in coping with the intolerable tensions of their time, assumed responsibilities and performed actions which quietly defied convention and transcended ‘a woman’s place.’” The same might be said of Murray herself. Through her legal scholarship, community organizing, creative writing, and engagement with the Episcopal Church, Murray broke away from societal conventions by continually pointing out the links between racial and gendered oppression. Her work, which we would now call “intersectional,” helped shape modern understandings of identity by showing how categories like “womanhood” continually evolved in relation to questions of sexuality, class, race, and religion.  Despite being a central, influential figure in the history of civil rights and women’s activism for the better part of the 20th century, Murray is not a household name. Now, with a new documentary film and a feature in New-York Historical’s current exhibition Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as our past profiles of Murray in WAMS, Women March, and Women’s Voices and other tributes, such as a community mural project in North Carolina, Murray is finally getting more public attention. 

Here and above: Pauli Murray, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library

Born Anna Pauline Murray on November 20, 1910, in Baltimore, Pauli was raised by her Aunt Pauline in the racially segregated Durham, North Carolina. As a granddaughter of someone held in slavery—the UNC archive holds the bill of sale for her great-grandmother, Harriet—Murray’s formative years in the Jim Crow South informed her forward thinking about race and gender. Her mixed race status, for example, immediately broke apart institutionalized divisions between black and white. As Murray noted, her family looked like a “United Nations in Miniature,” and it was often difficult for her to square the diversity of her community with the restrictive nature of her segregated schools. When Murray moved to New York and attended Hunter College and then to Washington, D.C., to study law at Howard University, she found that gender, alongside race, proved to be categories lodged by institutions to create seemingly arbitrary divisions amongst its populations. 

Murray’s personal papers have recently led to an emergence of research interest in her relationship to gender and sexuality. While some scholars have referred to Murray as transgender, others contend that such language—which was not invented until the 1990s—ignores the cultural contexts that shaped Murray’s approach to her identity. In many ways, Murray embodied the fragility of these socially constructed categories, which allowed her, for the rest of her life, to defy almost every rigid categorization society tried to assign to her. From a young age, Murray felt unlike other girls. She experimented with different names to replace her birth name, including Paul, Pete, and the Dude, before landing on Pauli. She preferred boys’ clothes, and the new film My Name is Pauli Murray (directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen who also directed the film RBG) shows that her Aunt Pauline lovingly called her  “my girl-boy.” Navigating a social and medical universe that positioned homosexuality and gender dysmorphia as mental illnesses, Murray expressly avoided associating herself with these terms. Spending a great deal of time at research centers including the New York Public Library, Murray read her way through its collections on “sexual deviance” and became convinced that she had been erroneously assigned female at birth. Her personal papers reveal deep bouts of depression, as Murray unsuccessfully attempted to obtain hormone therapy. “One of nature’s experiments,” she wrote in one entry, “a girl who should have been a boy.” While Murray openly had several serious relationships with women—including a 17-year-long partnership with her law colleague, Irene Barlow—she tended to reject the label of lesbian. Instead, Murray generally conceptualized her attraction to women as evidence of her innate maleness. 

“An Armful,” 1937. From Pauli Murray photograph album, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University,

Her 1987 autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat uses “she/her/hers” pronouns and makes little mention of her struggles with gender and sexuality. Following in Murray’s lead, her biographers tend to use feminine pronouns while contextualizing this usage within the broader arc of Murray’s views on her own identity. Here at New-York Historical, we have chosen to do the same, though we take note of the call, lodged by the Pauli Murray Center For History and Social Justice, to “be open to these questions of pronouns and gendered language as an evolving issue and to continue to re-examine our choices with the understanding that they could change in the future.” We might, in fact, look to Pauli Murray’s own poetry as providing one way into her relationship to naming and defining her identities. In “Words,” Murray suggests that meaning derives not so much from the precise language we use, but instead from how we might share our words with care and feeling:

We are spendthrifts with words,We squander them,Toss them like pennies in the air–Arrogant words,Angry words,Cruel words,Comradely words,Shy words tiptoeing from mouth to ear.But the slowly wrought words of loveand the thunderous words of heartbreak–Those we hoard.

Pauli Murray, 1946. Library of Congress.

The fingerprints of Murray’s writing and thinking are on virtually every social movement of the 20th century. One of the first lawyers to argue that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause’s approach to racial discrimination could also be applied to gender-based discrimination, Murray informed Thurgood Marshall’s legal strategy for Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and deeply influenced Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s first career-defining case, Reed v. Reed (1971). RBG even listed Murray as a co-author on her brief to the Supreme Court, despite Murray not working on the specific case, as a way to acknowledge how her arguments derived from Murray’s. Murray’s emphasis on the entanglements between different kinds of marginalized identities—and in particular, her 1965 article, “Jane Crow and the Law”—spearheaded arguments that continue to be used in women’s rights advocacy today. “This was Murray’s lifelong fate,” writes Kathryn Scultz on Murray’s longstanding but understudied contributions to social justice movements: “to be both ahead of her time and behind the scenes.”

An upcoming salon program from the Center for Women’s History will delve deeper into Murray’s life and influence on modern social movements, and we look forward to continuing to learn more about this central figure in the history of civil rights and women’s activism.

Written by Keren Ben-Horin and Karintha Lowe, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellows in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History.