By Ethan Poe
Pauli Murray is not a name often heard during Black History Month, but her life and struggles touched so many issues relevant to our lives. She was a champion for feminism, civil rights, worker’s rights, and the rights of sexual and gender minorities. Because of all these varied causes, she is often considered the founder of intersectional feminism. Her work even elevated her to Sainthood in the Episcopal Church. Whether as a role model, pioneer, or even saint, Murray is an amazing source of inspiration for anyone passionate about social justice.
Born Anna Pauline Murray in 1910, Murray’s early life was a constant struggle. The death of both of her parents forced her to live with multiple relatives, exposing her to racism in both Jim-Crow North Carolina and New York City. However, her diverse family life nurtured her passion for reading and education. A brilliant student, she graduated with honors from Hunter College and became a regular pen-pal with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Murray’s friendship with Roosevelt would later aid her in her post-college years, when she was rejected from University of North Carolina’s Law School. Universally recognized as a qualified candidate for law school, her dispute with the university led to the government attempting to intervene on her behalf. However, concerns about Murray’s sexuality and maverick actions (she was arrested for refusing to be moved to the back of a segregated Virginia bus 20 years before Rosa Parks) unfortunately allowed UNC grounds to deny her admission. Still, her unfair arrest inspired her to pursue Civil Rights law at Howard University, where she excelled academically and led her student community, setting the course for both her powerful legal writing and her success as an activist leader.
Murray’s legal work represents her most powerful legacy. One of her first legal writings, States’ Laws on Race and Color, hugely influenced the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education; Supreme Court Justice Thurgood later called it the “civil rights bible”. Much of her legal writing dealt with the concept of “Jane Crow”, a term she coined that highlighted how women of color were oppressed not only by race but also by gender. According to Murray, women in the Civil Rights Movement had to work even harder to overcome racial and gender bias. Although this concept of “Jane Crow” was ignored by many of her male civil rights peers, it helped her secure a position on President Kennedy’s Presidential Commission. There, she worked on the status of women and helped secure early protections against gender discrimination. Her writing on “Jane Crow” is also famous for its influence on future Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s brief in Reed v Reed, a case that greatly expanded women’s rights.
In her own private life, Murray dealt with many intense personal struggles separate from her political struggles. Her use of the name Pauli was a deliberate effort to de-feminize her own identity. Throughout her life, Murray struggled with her gender identity. In the 1940’s, she tried to receive hormone therapy but was met with strong resistance from the medical establishment. Later in life, she would feel free enough to rebel against the restrictive gender norms of the period, though this personal liberation tragically limited her career advancement. But in spite of those social and career pressures, she would continue to express herself openly and freely. It should be noted that while her career in politics was hindered by the conservative gender stereotypes of the time, she found immense support and fulfillment with her later work in the Episcopal Church.
Pauli Murray’s life story is a wonderful example of the power of intersectionality, the idea that different forces like race, gender, class, and sexual orientation can all oppress people. While these divisions that keep us down might be complex, the ability to team up with different communities for change can be a powerful force for good. Bringing together communities like feminists and civil rights activists helped to create a social movement that improved the lives of both women and people of color. Murray also worked to bring labor activists into the fight for social equality. This attitude of intersectionality has been hugely important in encouraging modern feminist activists to work with all sorts of marginalized communities. Bringing these communities together made all of them more powerful than they could be on their own. Pauli Murray was the pioneer who showed us all that working together is the best way to achieve social progress.
Pauli Murray may not be the best known figure in the civil rights or feminist movement, but her life and work offers a great example for future activists. She showed a true commitment to being herself in spite of serious social pressure against both her race and her gender identity. By being true to ourselves and working for all forms of social justice, we can carry on Murray’s truly inspiring legacy.