Encyclopedia Womannica

Feminists: Pauli Murray

Episode Summary

Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was a major civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, academic, attorney, renowned author and the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal Priest. She managed to achieve a truly extraordinary amount over the course of her lifetime and was an inspiration for RBG.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

This month of Encyclopedia Womannica is sponsored by Fiverr. Fiverr’s marketplace helps the world’s feminists get more done with less. Take Five and show your support for Fiverr’s new store at FVRR.co/women, where they feature over 100 of the platform’s top female talent.

Follow Wonder Media Network:

Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s feminist was a major Civil Rights Activist, Women’s Rights Activist, academic, attorney, renowned author and the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal Priest. She managed to achieve a truly extraordinary amount over the course of her lifetime. Please welcome Pauli Murray.

Anna Pauline "Pauli" Murray was born on November 20, 1910 in Baltimore, Maryland to Agnes and William Murray. William was a high school teacher and a graduate of Howard University.

When Pauli was just four years old, her mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage. She and her five siblings were sent down to Durham, North Carolina to live with their aunt, an elementary school teacher, and their grandparents. Pauli’s father was unable to take care of the children because he suffered from long-term effects related to Typhoid. He was eventually hospitalized in the Crownsville State Hospital until his 1923 murder by a hospital guard.

In 1926, after graduating from High School with distinction, Pauli moved up to New York City and enrolled at Hunter College. She paid her tuition by working multiple jobs, but when the stock market crashed in 1929, work became impossible to find and Pauli was forced to drop out. She eventually completed her degree in 1933.

In the 1930s, Pauli found jobs with the Works Progress Administration and the Workers Defense League. That was her first real foray into political activism and community organizing. She also started teaching at the New York City Remedial Reading Project..In what little free time she had, Pauli began writing and had a number of poems and articles published, as well as her novel, Angel of the Desert.

In the 1930s and 1940s Pauli also sought medical assistance and received testosterone injections, according to Dr. Rosalind Rosenberg, who wrote a biography of Pauli entitled “Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray,”. Though the vocabulary didn’t exactly exist at the time, Pauli may have been gender nonbinary. It is very possible that if Pauli had lived in a later period, she may have identified as a trans man. We are using the pronouns she and her because those are the pronouns Pauli used during her lifetime. 

Pauli started to become active in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. In 1938, she publicly attempted to gain admission to the all-white University of North Carolina graduate school. With the NAACP backing her cause, Pauli’s story became national news. Unfortunately it would be another 15 years before that barrier would be broken, and not by Pauli, but the experience did lead to a lifelong friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Two years later, Pauli joined a Christian-focused Civil Rights group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and worked to help end segregation and discrimination on public transportation. In March of 1940, Pauli was arrested for refusing to sit at the back of a segregated bus in Virginia, 15 years before Rosa Parks would take her stand down in Montgomery.

In 1941, Pauli enrolled at Howard University Law School with the goal of becoming a Civil Rights attorney. While there, she and other well-known activists like George Houser and Bayerd Rustin, started the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE. CORE was heavily influenced by the teachings of Gandhi. The organization believed that the non-violent civil-disobedience movement that led to the overthrow of the British in India could be equally effective in the United States.

In 1944, Pauli graduated from Howard University Law School. She was first in her class and was the only woman. She then aspired to continue her legal studies at Harvard University. She won a prestigious fellowship to attend, which would have fully covered her studies, but the offer was immediately rescinded upon learning that Pauli was, in fact, a woman. Instead, she got her master of philosophy degree from the University of California Boalt School of Law..

After graduating yet again, Pauli moved back to New York City with degrees in hand to devote herself to Civil Rights work. With her star on the rise, Pauli was named Mademoiselle Magazine’s Woman of The Year in 1947. In 1951, she published a book called “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” which Thurgood Marshall called the “Bible for civil rights lawyers.”

In 1956, Pauli published perhaps her most beloved work, “Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family,” a memoir about the lives of her grandparents and her early years growing up in the Jim Crow South.

In 1960, after returning from a trip to Ghana to find her roots, Pauli was appointed to President Kennedy’s Committee on Civil and Political Rights. She worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., Philip Randolph and Bayerd Rustin on major Civil Rights initiatives. But she became concerned by the fact that men were dominating leadership positions in the major Civil Rights organizations, even though female activists played a huge role in the movement.

In 1964, the same year that the Civil Rights Act was passed, Pauli co-authored “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex discrimination and Title VII,” which clearly defines the parallels between gender discrimination and racial discrimination. Now Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was inspired by the paper and utilized a strategy outlined by Pauli in her fight for judicial gender equity. 

In 1966, Pauli, along with Betty Friedan and 30 other women, co-founded the National Organization for Women, or NOW.

In 1973, at age 62, Pauli once again went back to school. This time she mixed things up a bit by attending the General Theological Seminary in order to earn her Master of Divinity degree.

 A year after graduating from Seminary, Pauli became the first African-American female priest to be ordained by the Episcopal Church. She served as a priest for five years before her forced retirement at age 72, the mandatory age of retirement for Episcopal clergy at the time.

Pauli died of cancer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 1st, 1985. Two years later, her groundbreaking autobiography, “Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage,” was published posthumously.

All month we’re talking about feminists. We’ve covered feminists in every theme so far. What differentiates this month is that we will be looking at women who were particularly important to the women’s rights movement, the suffrage movement, and/or modern feminism and feminist theory. On Saturdays, we’re talking about modern feminists brought to you by this month’s sponsor, Fiverr. On Sundays, we’re highlighting favorite feminists from past months chosen by other podcast hosts we love. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our new Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

This month of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by Fiverr, an online digital services marketplace connecting businesses with women who are creating, designing, copywriting, programming, editing, and more. 

Fiverr is here to support the world’s freelance community during these challenging and uncertain times where businesses need to adapt to in the face of the corona pandemic.  Women are an integral part of Fiverr's platform, many having worked with some of the most influential brands in the world. Fiverr is here to support all of their freelancers at this time, as well as hire people behind-the-scenes who are equally passionate about supporting their efforts to create, design and innovate through their unique freelance platform.

With Fiverr operating in over 160 countries and offering digital services across 300 categories, there are clearly lots of opportunities to change how the world works together with them in these unprecedented times. Head to FIVERR.com to see how Fiverr might be able to support you or your business.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. Talk to you tomorrow!