In a 1967 letter to the National Organization of Women, Anne “Pauli” Murray said, “I hold the status of multiple minorities. I can’t allow myself to be fragmented, into Negro at one time, woman at another, or worker at another. I must find a unifying principle in all these movements to which I can adhere.” This amazing woman was the first woman of color to serve as California’s deputy attorney general, the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Yale, the first black female Episcopal priest and a vital part of queer history. Who is she, and why have you never heard of her?
Murray was born in Baltimore in the year 1910. She attended Hunter College in New York, which caused financial trouble to the point where she suffered from malnourishment. After graduation she worked as a teacher, lawyer and activist for the Workers Defense League. In 1938 she launched a letter-writing campaign after being denied admission at UNC Chapel Hill because of her race. The campaign captured the attention and eventual friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt, to whom she became a civil and human rights issues advisor. She was later offered an honorary degree from UNC Chapel Hill, which she declined.
Murray struggled with questioning her gender identity and sexuality, feeling like she was, in her own words, a “man trapped in a woman’s body” and was attracted to women. Posthumously defining Murray’s gender identity and sexuality is somewhat problematic. Though today she might have identified as transgender or a lesbian, she never used those labels, partly because the fields of gender and sexuality studies such as we have today did not exist (female pronouns are used here because she used them).
Being gay was considered a psychiatric disorder at the time, and doctors refused to give her hormones, saying she needed to adapt to life as a female. Murray strongly related to Havelock Ellis’ work on “pseudo-hermaphrodites,” a term he used to describe people who saw themselves as members of the opposite gender from the one assigned to them at birth. Identifying as fundamentally male helped her make sense of her sexuality, as she did not like the lesbian label. She considered her “very natural falling in love with the female sex” as a representation of her “inner maleness.”
Murray was a woman of so many firsts that you would think she’d be acknowledged for them. Part of the reason for Murray not getting the recognition she deserves is that she was so radical—so dynamic—that society is just catching up now, 32 years after her death. Murray has an extremely long and varied laundry list of achievements that I would highly encourage those interested to explore further. She led sit-in demonstrations during World War II before the ‘60s made civil disobedience necessary. In 1944, she declared to her Howard University class, made up of white males, that Plessy v. Ferguson needed to be challenged and overturned. Her thesis was later used by Thurgood Marshall in Brown v. Board (without being credited, of course). In 1965, she called for a women’s March on Washington to fight for Title VII. This amazing queer black woman worked to bridge the gaps between her identities and fought for unification.
Caroline Fritz is a third-year English major with a minor in linguistics. She can be reached at CF853302@wcupa.edu.