Spotlight: Pauli Murray, ahead of her time

Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray (November 20, 1910-July1, 1985) is not a name that is especially well-known today. But it should be. Her life, her contributions, her work, her story – all of it is remarkable. She was an important, incredible figure in both the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Pauli is yet another story of a “hidden figure” – a woman of color who led change and made lasting contributions, yet whose story is largely unknown by people. Like so many women of color leaders, Pauli was both ahead of her time and behind the scenes, working tirelessly and vigorously to create a better world for us all.

Pauli was a lawyer, activist, poet, writer, legal theorist, labor organizer, and the first Black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. She moved to New York City at age 16 to attend Hunter College, and in 1940, two decades before the civil rights movement, she was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus in Virginia. Pauli was involved in the Workers’ Defense League, and enrolled in law school at Howard University with “the single-minded intention of destroying Jim Crow,” organized sit-ins that successfully
desegregated Washington, D.C. restaurants, and urged her Howard classmates to head south to fight for civil rights and appeal to white college-educated youths to join. At Howard, her race was no longer an issue, but her gender became one—all her classmates and faculty were male. Pauli coined the term “Jane Crow” to refer to the type of degradation and discrimination she experienced. and spent the rest of her life fighting to end it. (And yes, she graduated first in her class at Howard in 1944.)

In law school, Pauli formalized and articulated the intellectual foundation and argument that segregation violated the 13th and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, and her words impacted her former professor Spottswood Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and the rest of the team that eventually, in 1954, successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education. In addition to her argument for overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, Pauli also co-wrote a law-review article that was later used by Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the ACLU to successfully argue in front of the Supreme Court that the Equal Protection Clause applies to sex discrimination.

In her lifetime, Pauli also hung around with Langston Hughes, was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, cofounded the National Organization for Women, served on President Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and the national board of the ACLU, and became the first Black woman to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science from Yale Law School. Pauli was a forebearer to today’s social justice movements, and the reality that gender justice is racial justice is economic justice. Pauli believed that the struggles for women’s rights and civil rights are linked, and consequently helped form broad coalitions and alliances among different activists and workers. Decades before #ShePersisted became a viral hashtag, Pauli and countless other women of color continued to endure and work and stand against racism, sexism, and misogyny, and to fight for equity. Pauli recognized, presciently, that “what is often called exceptional ability is nothing more than persistent endeavor.”

Throughout her life, Pauli struggled privately with gender identity and sexual attraction, and throughout her life, identified as a man (per Pauli’s own cue, writers have used female pronouns to refer to Pauli). She omitted the history of this struggle with gender and sexuality in her own autobiography. However, she spent her life insisting that her identity be fully integrated. Four decades before Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” Pauli insisted on the indivisibility of her identity and experience a Black woman and worker, stating, “I hold the status of several minorities…I cannot allow myself to be fragmented into Negro at one time, woman at another, or worker at another.”

Read more about Pauli and her incredible life in the latest issue of The New Yorker.


April 27-30 marks YWCA’s 10th annual Stand Against Racism, and this year, we are focused on a very important theme: Women of Color Leading Change. Why? Because women of color lead change and have been leading change since the very beginning, but are far too often overlooked or silenced. We know that when women of color lead, positive change happens and everyone is lifted up.

Join us as we celebrate and honor women of color leaders and talk about the barriers that create racial and gender disparities to leadership. Together, let’s highlight and lift up stories of determined, fierce women of color leaders and trailblazers in our communities and throughout history! Visit http://standagainstracism.org/ to learn more. There, you can look up to see if there are any events near you, register to host your own event or gathering, sign the pledge to stand against racism, and more!