NOTE: I neglected to mention in my introductory post that for each Groundbreaker I profile, I will start by providing a comparable famous person who is more well known in the mainstream. This gives a sense of who the Groundbreaker could have been if factors like race and gender discrimination (among others) did not stand so much in their way, and, sometimes, on whose shoulders the more famous person stands.
Additionally, these posts are not intended to provide the full life story of the Groundbreaker; that would both be impractical for blog length purposes and not helpful to my aim to inspire readers to go out and research these inspiring folks on their own. These posts are meant to be just a starting point!
You likely know about Supreme Court justice and all-around bad-ass Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or as she’s become known lately, the Notorious RBG. She’s now the senior left-leaning justice on the Court and has written both some of the most pivotal majority opinions and the most scathing dissents.
But do you know about the woman who first thought to use the Constitution to challenge discrimination against women?
Her name was Pauli Murray, and it is fair to say that without her, RBG might not have gone in the same direction in her legal career. While Murray could conceivably be compared to a whole range of people, much of her many important accomplishments were achieved in the field of law, and because they actually worked together, I’ve chosen to compare her to Ginsburg.
The first challenge in writing about Anna Pauline Murray (1910-1985) is defining who exactly she was, as she had more than one lifetime’s worth of careers. On Wikipedia she is listed as a “civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, lawyer, Episcopal priest, and author.” She was incredibly ahead of her time. Politically active starting in the 1930s, she would likely be on the same page as Bernie Sanders today. She was often critical even of the mostly liberal Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policies in the late 30s and early 40s, particularly as a black, queer woman (who also questioned her gender identity throughout her life) who lived in poverty for much of her life. Her critiques of FDR eventually put her in touch with Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom she began a decades-long friendship, documented in Patricia Bell-Scott’s recent book, The Firebrand and the First Lady. It is fortunate that this book, as well as a couple of others, now exist, as Murray’s life has not been documented as much as it should have been until relatively recently.
Murray really made her mark, and was arguably the most natural, in law. Though she studied at the law school of the historically black Howard University in Washington, there was as much sexism there as Ginsburg would experience at Harvard and Columbia law schools. As she would experience again and again throughout her life, she was not taken seriously by her male professors and classmates, despite likely being the most intelligent and certainly most forward-thinking student in her class. The treatment she was given throughout her life led her to coin the term “Jane Crow,” illustrating that being a black woman in America was even harder than being a black man.
Her legal acumen was so on point that she predicted the overturning of the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), declaring separate facilities for white and black Americans “equal,” ten years before it eventually happened with the 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which mandated desegregating the public schools. Of course this change in policy seems inevitable to us now, as much of history eventually does in hindsight, but at the time it was, well, groundbreaking and sadly seemed ridiculous. Perhaps more importantly, the essay she wrote on this very topic in law school was eventually used in the legal argument against “separate but equal” in the Brown case, argued by future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. The essay successfully argued that segregation treated black children as inferior, and negatively affected both white and black children (described in Bell-Scott’s book). This was but one instance where Murray did not get the credit she rightfully deserved for her incredibly significant work.
Fast-forward to the 1970s, where Murray had received her doctorate in the science of law from Yale University in 1965, continuing her studies on race in America in her dissertation. But despite her credentials and clear ability, she wasn’t able to get a university job since she was both black and a woman. Among her activities she patched together to earn a living, she joined the board of the American Civil Liberties Union, later helping found, with women’s rights activist Dorothy Kenyon, the civil liberties organization’s Women’s Rights Project, eventually led by Ginsburg.
Ginsburg would make her name known by arguing the case Reed v. Reed before the Supreme Court in 1971, a landmark case for women’s equality under the law. Though Murray and Kenyon were not directly involved in this case, Ginsburg stated at the time that she was “standing on their shoulders” due to their work on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. To RBG’s credit, she did recognize Murray and Kenyon for their work by putting their names on the cover of the legal brief, for which she was harshly criticized. But she insisted they deserved recognition for their important work (see more in The Notorious RBG, referenced at the end). Perhaps Ginsburg, who herself had trouble finding a job after law school despite graduating at the top of her class, empathized with Murray’s double struggle as both black and female. Despite this honor, Murray still did not get the mainstream recognition she so thoroughly deserved for her groundbreaking work in this field.
Knowing just some of her incredible life story, now imagine if Murray had been given the same chance as RBG or even Thurgood Marshall to be a Supreme Court justice (though knowing her background it would not have been politically likely). As much as RBG deserves to be on the Court, she might agree that Murray did just as much. What kind of impact would her sharp legal mind and unique American experience have had not only on the Court but on the American judicial system and people from marginalized groups in this country? How do we reckon with the fact that so many deserving individuals not only in law, but in all fields, never were able to reach their full potential due to the discriminatory practices that still exist in this country? It’s both saddening and infuriating.
Fortunately both for Murray and for those of us who are better off because of her legacy, she is finally starting to receive some of the recognition she deserves, even 40 years after Ginsburg tried her best. Besides her increased appearance in books and articles (some of which I’m including here), her alma mater Yale recently named a new dorm building after her, Pauli Murray College. Later, after initial resistance, Yale eventually renamed Calhoun College, named after the racist secessionist John C. Calhoun, after another pioneer, computer scientist Grace Hopper, a move in the right direction that Murray certainly would have approved of.
I chose Pauli Murray as my first Groundbreaker because she has become one of my personal heroes. I greatly admire how ahead of her time she was, and how she would still be considered ahead of her time on certain issues today, particularly around sexual orientation gender identity. She was asking many of the questions we have just begun to grapple with now, in the 21st century, as early as the 1930s, almost a century ago. I also find her work ethic and persistence in the face of all obstacles quite inspiring. I imagine if she were around today she would be right in the thick of it with those seeking real progressive change in our political system. I only hope that as time goes on she continues to receive the credit that she was robbed of throughout her life. I know that in these troubling times I will continue to look to her example when I feel like giving up hope.
Learn more about this Groundbreaker!
If you have found what I’ve written about Pauli Murray even the least bit interesting and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the books, articles, and websites I’ve included below. This is not an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.
- The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice: Patricia Bell-Scott’s excellent book on the fascinating friendship between Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt, and both of their lives; Bell-Scott even had the opportunity to interview Murray in the last few years of her life
- Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray, by Rosalind Rosenberg: I haven’t read this one, but this is a more detailed biography of Murray’s life
- From ACLU website: “Tribute: The Legacy Of Ruth Bader Ginsburg And WRP Staff,” https://www.aclu.org/other/tribute-legacy-ruth-bader-ginsburg-and-wrp-staff: more info on Ginsburg on the ACLU Women’s Rights Project
- Yale University Pauli Murray College website: https://paulimurray.yalecollege.yale.edu/
- The Many Lives of Pauli Murray”, by Kathryn Schulz, in The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/17/the-many-lives-of-pauli-murray: good intro to Murray without having to read a full biography’
- General info on Murray from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pauli_Murray
- Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik: features section on RBG and Pauli Murray; and also a great book on its own!