Last updated: June 2, 2023
Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland on November 20, 1910. Her mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1914. Her father, a teacher in the Baltimore public school system, suffered from depression and was eventually confined to a state mental hospital where he was murdered by a white guard in 1923. Orphaned at age fourteen, Murray moved to Durham, North Carolina to live with her aunt and her grandparents.
After graduating with distinction from high school in 1926, Murray arrived in New York City to attend Hunter College. She graduated in 1933 with a degree in English Literature. It was at this time and throughout the 1930s that Murray’s struggles with gender became central to her life. She changed her name to “Pauli” to represent a more androgynous identity. Historian Rosalind Rosenberg, author of Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray, asserts that Murray identified as a transgender man but did not have the information or acceptance available during her lifetime to describe it.
During the Great Depression, Murray worked for the Works Projects Administration (WPA), the Workers Defense League, and as a teacher in New York City. She published articles and poems in various magazines, including The Crisis, a publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Murray soon became involved in the civil rights movement. Her unsuccessful attempt to enter graduate school at the all-white University of North Carolina received national publicity. During this time, Murray developed a life-long friendship and correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt.
Murray worked to end segregation on public transport. Her activism in March 1940 led to Murray’s arrest and imprisonment for refusing to sit at the back of a bus in Richmond, Virginia. In 1941, Murray enrolled at Howard University law school with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer. The following year she joined George Houser, James Farmer, and Bayard Rustin to form the nonviolence-focused Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). It was during her years at Howard that she became acutely aware of the oppression she faced as a woman, coining the term “Jane Crow” to describe her experience.
Graduating at the top of her class in 1944, Murray was recipient of the prestigious Rosenwald Fellowship. Previous graduates had used the fellowship to attend Harvard University, but Murray’s application to Harvard Law School was rejected on basis of gender. The discrimination faced on the basis of sexual orientation would inform much of her work in civil rights.
After receiving her Master of Laws degree from the University of California at Berkeley, Murray returned to New York City and provided support to the growing civil rights movement. In 1951, She published States’ Laws on Race and Color. Thurgood Marshall, head of the legal department at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), described Murray’s book as the “Bible” for civil rights litigators.
Like many Black citizens involved in the civil rights movement, Murray was a victim of McCarthyism. In 1952, she lost a US State Department post at Cornell University because the people who had supplied her references (Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, and A. Philip Randolph) were considered radical. A few years later, Murray joined a new law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton, and Garrison, where she met her partner Irene Barlow.
After traveling throughout Ghana in 1960 to explore her African cultural roots and teach law, Murray returned to the United States and received her J.S.D. from Yale University, the first African American to receive this degree. While there, Murray mentored several young women activists, including Marian Wright Edelman, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Patricia Roberts Harris, who would also become notable leaders.
Murray continued her activism throughout the 1960s. President John F. Kennedy appointed Murray to the Committee on Civil and Political Rights as a part of his Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Working closely with A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Murray criticized the disparity between the major role Black women played in the crucial grass-roots struggle and their minor representation national policy-making decisions. In 1966, Murray joined Betty Friedan and others to found the National Organization for Women (NOW), but later relinquished a leading role, believing the issues of Black and working-class women were not adequately addressed by the organization.
From 1968 to 1973, Murray joined the faculty at Brandeis University. Following the death of her longtime partner Irene Barlow in 1973, Murray left Brandeis to become a candidate for ordination at General Theological Seminary. In 1977, Murray became the first African American woman in the US to become an Episcopal priest.
Murray’s pioneering work on gender discrimination was fundamental to the Equal Protection Clause's approach that racial discrimination should apply equally to gender-based discrimination. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg credited Murry’s legal strategy as the inspiration for her 1971 brief in Reed v. Reed, which ruled that women could not be excluded as administrators of personal estates based on their gender. The Equal Protection Clause has since served as precedent for many sex discrimination arguments.
Murray died of cancer in Pittsburgh on July 1, 1985.
Pronouns, Gender, Pauli Murry
Terminology and language referring to LGBTQ communities, gender expression, and gender identities is different today than it was in Pauli Murray’s lifetime. Murray self-described as a “he/she personality” in correspondence with family members. Later in journals, essays, letters and autobiographical works, Pauli employed “she/her/hers'' pronouns and self-described as a woman. Scholars use a range of pronouns when referring to Murray: “he/him/his” pronouns (Simmons-Thorne), “they/them/theirs” pronouns (Keaveney), “s/he” pronouns (Fisher), and “she/her/hers” pronouns (Rosenberg, Cooper, Drury). We don’t know how Pauli Murray would identify today or which pronouns Pauli would use for self-expression. This remains an ongoing discussion in the National Park Service, but we do recognize that pronouns matter.
The Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice
National Museum of African American History & Culture, Smithsonian Institution