Pauli Murray, 1910-1985

  • Pauli-Murray-WWP

Woman Category: Academy & Education, Activism & Feminism, Law, and Religion & Ethnic CultureWoman Tags: African-American Women, Author, Educator, Lawyer, LGBTQ, and Spiritual Leader

  • HerStory

    A lawyer, writer, educator, civil and women’s rights activist, and the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. Considered as one of the first transgender figures in US history.

    Anna Pauline Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to parents of mixed racial origins. At age 3, her mother had died of a cerebral hemorrhage, and not long after, her father also passed away in tragic circumstances. She was raised by her mother’s family in North Carolina and then New York City. Her enrollment to Columbia University was declined because of her gender, so she attended Hunter College, as one of few students of color, and earned a degree in English. At the time, she secretly married William Roy Wynn, but she soon regretted that decision, disgust by the act of having sex, and they parted a few months after.
    At 28, she applied to the University of North Carolina, this time she was rejected because of her race. Trying to change the university’s position, she wrote to various officials, from the university president to the US President.
    While on a bus at Petersburg, Virginia, she and her friend moved from the broken seats in the black section and sited in the white section. Refusing to return to the back, they were arrested and convicted of disorderly conduct. The Workers’ Defense League paid for their release. Murray’s personal experience with injustice led her to pursue a career in civil rights law, and at the age of 31, she began to study law at Howard University. Being the only woman in her department, she became utterly aware of sexism and discrimination against women, especially black women. She labeled this behavior as “Jane Crow,” by which she emphasized the struggle of African-American women for racial equality as well as their fight for equality among the sexes.
    Murray graduated first in her class, but because of her gender, she was denied the fellowship at Harvard University, traditionally given to the class’s valedictorian. Instead, she did her post-graduate studying at Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. At the age of 36, one year after passing the bar exams, she was hired as the state’s deputy attorney general and became the first African-American person to serve in this position. In that year, she was named “woman of the year” by the National Council of Negro Women.
    In 1950, Murray published the book “States’ Laws on Race and Color” – an examination of the segregation laws in the US, in which she encouraged civil rights lawyers to refer segregation laws as unconstitutional instead of inequality. Later the book was credited as “The bible of the civil rights movement” and became a turning point for assessing segregation cases.
    After coining the term 20 years earlier, in 1965, she published the article “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII,” in which she examines Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its implications on women, comparing discriminatory laws as applied to women and men under Jim Crow Laws. The next year, she co-founded the National Organization for Women, as a parallel organization to the NAACP, focusing on women’s rights. In 1966, alongside Dorothy Kenyon, she argued a case in which the court ruled that jury selection cannot be discriminated by race or sex.
    Throughout her life, she struggled with her sexual and gender identity, was open about being a gender-nonconforming person, claiming she has an “inverted sex instinct.” She Shortened her name to the gender non-specific “Pauli” and wished for a monogamous married life in which she was the man. She cut her hair short and wore pants instead of skirts. During the 1940s, she pursued hormone treatments to correct what she referred to as “personal imbalance,” and she even asked for an abdominal surgery to test if she had hidden male sex organs. Today she is recognized as one of the early transgender figures in US history.
    At the age of 62, Murray resigned from her academic position and enrolled in a General Theological Seminary. Five years later, she became the first African-American woman priest to be ordained by the Episcopal church. For the next seven years until her death in 1985, she worked with the sick at a parish in Washington, DC.

    “If anyone should ask a Negro woman in America what has been her greatest achievement, her honest answer would be, ‘I survived!’”

    “If anyone should ask a Negro woman in America what has been her greatest achievement, her honest answer would be, ‘I survived!’”

    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • Her ancestors include black slaves, free black people, white slave owners, Irish, and Native Americans, for which she was described as a “United Nations in miniature.”
    • She wrote a collection of poetry and two volumes of autobiography.
    • She was active in the case of Odell Waller – a black sharecropper who sentenced to death for killing his white landlord. She toured the country, raising funds for his appeal and wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt on his behalf. The correspondence between Murray and Roosevelt established a friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives.
    • She is the first African-American to receive a Doctor of the Science of Law degree from Yale.
    • She was appointed by President John F. Kennedy as the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.
    • The Pauli Murray College at Yale University is named in her honor.
    • She is commemorated on July 2nd at the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints.


  • More About Her Legacy
    Creations By and About Her:

    * Books about her


    * Chosen as one of the Holy Women, Holy Men of the Episcopal Church

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  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • The Price of Survival (A Song of Hope: The Life Story of Pauli Murray)

    Rough sketches of work-in-progress footage for the Mass Humanities funded documentary-in-progress that tells the story of Pauli Murray (1910-1985), a tireless human rights champion ahead of her time. In the early 1940s, Murray was staging non-violent “stool-sitting” actions in Washington DC restaurants. A founding member of NOW, Murray led the charge for recognition of Jane Crow, her term for double discrimination that minority women faced. At retirement age, Murray left a Brandeis faculty position to attend divinity school, later becoming the first woman priest of the Episcopal Church.

  • Photo credit - Wikipedia