This is a dry, academic biography of a fascinating, little-known but impressive civil rights activist. Born in 1910, Pauli Murray was a mixed-race woman who today would be considered a transgender man, but during her lifetime this was a secret kept from all but her closest friends. After growing up in the segregated South, she became an early nonviolent civil rights activist; became a lawyer despite being rejected by one school for her race and another for her sex; authored some of the foundational legal scholarship that Ruth Bader Ginsburg relied upon heavily in briefing the first successful women’s rights case before the Supreme Court; helped found NOW, though she later broke with the organization over its prioritizing professional white women’s issues; was way ahead of her time in writing about what today we call intersectionality, recognizing how race, gender, poverty, and other disadvantages compound one another; became a tenured professor when almost no black women achieved this status; and finally gave that up to attend seminary and become the first black female Episcopal priest. She was also an author, whose poetry was read at Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial service, and who wrote an excellent book, Proud Shoes, about her complicated family history.
It was an eventful life, to be sure, and Murray also suffered more than her share of setbacks. She struggled throughout most of her life to find decently paid employment, and never stayed at the same job more than five years. She struggled with her gender identity and sexuality (insisting that she wasn’t a lesbian because she was only attracted to feminine, heterosexual women). She struggled with mental health issues that sound a lot like bipolar, and was even involuntarily committed at one point, but this apparently cleared up after she finally had thyroid surgery. She had a complicated family situation, being orphaned young and raised separately from her siblings, then later in life becoming responsible for her elderly aunts – whose insistence that she return to North Carolina to visit required her to ride segregated buses, which at one point led to her arrest.
You would think no author could make this story boring, but Rosenberg kind of does. Now, it’s fair to say I wanted a narrative – the story of Pauli Murray – and Rosenberg gave me facts. Meticulously researched facts, no doubt about it, but still dry facts, with emotional content only occasionally referenced. There are a lot of names, dates and organizations in this book, a lot of details about Murray’s career, but no emotional core or throughline. Here’s an example:
Thacher Clarke, Murray’s young friend from Paul, Weiss, homed in on the problem of private employment discrimination when Murray sought her comment on Murray’s Fourteenth Amendment proposal. Thacher was by then married to the Reverend John Anderson, whom she had met in 1959 at the founding conference of the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity (ESCRU), an organization aimed at ending race discrimination in the church. By 1962, Thacher was a mother on unpaid leave from a job she had taken at the New York State Division of Human Rights. She agreed with Murray’s arguments in her Fourteenth Amendment memorandum, but her work at the Division of Human Rights persuaded her that the bigger problem was private employers. New York, along with more than a score of northern and western states, had passed a Fair Employment Practice law in the years since World War II. As of 1964, however, the state still allowed discrimination in employment on the basis of gender; indeed, only two states – Wisconsin and Hawaii – barred private businesses from discriminating against women. Anderson urged Murray to broaden her equal rights efforts to encompass sex discrimination in the private sector.
Eh, okay. I learned from this book, but it was a long slog. I’d love to see someone write a popular biography of Murray though – there is so much great material!