Pauli Murray

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Pauli Murray


United States

Birth - Death

1910 - 1985


Religion, Activist, Law


A lawyer and civil rights activist, Pauli Murray is notable for her behind-the-scenes legal work that materially advanced the rights of women and minorities in the judicial system of the United States. In her later years, Murray became the first black woman ordained an Episcopal priest.

Murray was born into a poor mixed-race family. She was raised by her aunt and grandparents on the death of her mother and the institutionalization of her father. She was forced to attend Hunter College for her early education because her favoured institution, Columbia University, did not accept women at the time. On graduation, Murray worked in a number of menial jobs, most notably at a conservation camp where she experienced her first intimate relationship with Peg Holmes.

Pauli Murray applied for admission to study at the University of North Carolina but was rejected because she was African-American. She attempted to fight the discrimination, but lawyers and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples (NAACP) would not accept her case in part because of her sexual orientation.

This spurred Murray on to fight harder against discrimination. She enrolled in the law program at Howard University in 1941 with the intent of becoming a civil rights lawyer. After graduating first in her class, she attempted to continue her studies at Harvard University but was again rejected on her gender (though she was accepted for a scholarship). Instead, she attended the University of California and passed the California Bar Exam in 1945.

The following year Pauli Murray was hired as the state of California’s first black deputy attorney general. That year, she was named Woman of the Year by the National Council of Negro Women, and was accorded the same honour in 1947 by Mademoiselle magazine. Her monumental book States’ Law on Race and Colour (1951) was a sensation and is considered the Bible for civil and women’s rights.

Pauli Murray was appointed to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in 1961. She published her landmark article Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII (1965) which discussed the civil rights movement and women (she coined the phrase ‘Jane Crow’ to name the forms of sexist discrimination she had witnessed). She co-founded the National Organization for Women (1965).

Pauli Murray was an instrumental player in the Supreme Court ruling of 1971 that extended the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause to women. She argued that the Equal Protection Clause should be applied to cases of sex discrimination in the same way as for racial discrimination. The analogy with race was applied to gender. Successfully doing so made Pauli Murray the pioneer in creating this legal strategy to advance women’s rights in the United States.

Similarly, in 1966 as a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, Murray successfully argued the legal case which struck down the constitutionality of an all-white, all-male jury system in the country. For the first time, women had an equal right to serve as jurors.

In her later years, Pauli Murray became a professor at Brandeis University from 1968-1975. She left at that time for the Episcopal Church, becoming the first black woman to be ordained a priest. In 2012 she was named an Episcopal Saint.

Throughout her life, Pauli Murray’s open lesbian identity challenged her acceptability for many of her detractors. It also alienated her in her quest to obtain a law degree at the institution of her choosing; it marginalized her in the civil rights movement and its organizations, such as the NAACP; and it has limited her recognition laid on the advancement of equal rights for women.

In 2017, Murray's home became a National Landmark.

As a gender, non-conforming woman, Pauli Murray is one of the most important LGBTQ individuals in the community’s history.

See Also

Further Reading/Research

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