Jurisprudence

Who Was Pauli Murray?

The brilliant legal scholar talked about dignity as a constitutional right decades before Obergefell.

A bespectacled Black woman, surrounded by books, smiles broadly.
Still from My Name Is Pauli Murray Courtesy of Amazon Studios

On a recent episode of Amicus, Dahlia Lithwick discussed the legacy of Pauli Murray—a Black, non-binary, queer, feminist, civil rights pioneer who was also a poet, a teacher, a lawyer and legal activist, and ultimately an Episcopal priest—with Betsy West and Julie Cohen, directors of the new documentary film My Name Is Pauli Murray, and Patricia Bell-Scott, author of The Firebrand and the First Lady, a book about Murray’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Dahlia Lithwick: Julie and Betsy, your last movie was RBG. What is the pivot from making a movie about RBG to making a movie about Pauli Murray like, because it is striking that one is an icon larger than life, known to all—there’s a coffee mug in every cabinet—and then Pauli Murray, who but for dints of race, dints of not having a Marty to push them forward is almost completely unknown to history.

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Julie Cohen: It wasn’t exactly a pivot to go from RBG to Pauli Murray. It was a very straight line, because it was RBG herself who put Pauli’s name on a 1971 Supreme Court brief: the first one that RBG wrote, Reed v. Reed. Pauli Murray did not specifically work on that case, however, previously in both a law journal paper and in a case that Pauli argued in federal court, Pauli had made the argument that the 14th Amendment, the equal protection clause, could be used to secure gender equality just as it had been used to secure racial equality. This essentially was RBG’s argument in Reed v. Reed, the series of cases that we talk about in our film RBG. RBG took the unusual position that she was going to give credit where it’s due.

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RBG knew Pauli from having served together on the board of the ACLU. Previously they had briefly crossed paths at [the white-shoe law firm of] Paul, Weiss, where RBG was a summer associate when Pauli was a full-time ongoing associate. RBG had read Pauli’s legal work, and she just decided, “Why wouldn’t I give Pauli Murray deserved credit?” A very unusual move for a Supreme court litigator, but RBG went for it.

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Patricia, your work was on the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray. Again, one of them is an icon, the other was really almost lost to history. Do you have a theory of how it is possible that Pauli Murray, moving in the circles she moved in, accomplishing what she accomplished, almost slid through history’s fingers.

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Patricia Bell-Scott: I think there are several factors. First of all, we have to be mindful of the historical context in which she lived, in which people with her background and her intellect who presented as female and who were lawyers found it very difficult to get help. Pauli talked about not being allowed, or being discouraged from, speaking in classes. Professors said that there’s really no place for a woman, as she presented at the time, as an attorney or as a legal scholar.

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Now we often use the term intersectionality. Pauli Murray was the embodiment of that concept. She is a person who knew from personal and professional and in every way that one might imagine what restrictions are placed upon one because of race, class, gender, and economic background. And she was vulnerable in all of those areas. There are also some personal factors. Pauli had an interesting personality. I feel fortunate in that I was able to interview several of her long-term friends, and many of them talked about her brilliance, but also how impatient she was.

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What that meant was that she might be in a meeting or in a situation where she presents really innovative ideas, and the people in the room would be very impressed. But if Pauli thought that the people were boring, she would move right along and leave the idea there but not seek to claim it. So there’s a pattern of male colleagues, particularly lawyers, who would take her ideas and not bother to give her credit. And I’m sure that many women and people who are marginalized in various settings have had that experience. Pauli was never adequately compensated, and for a good portion of her young life suffered from malnutrition. So we end up with a person who is compromised in terms of her physical health, in addition to dealing with gender-identity conflict issues.

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In addition to her impatience, she was someone who really didn’t care a whole lot for the hierarchy of institutions. And it’s within those hierarchies and the people who reside in them that history is written. The person who writes the minutes really shapes the perception of what happened. Her frustration with hierarchies, her general insistence on moving ahead, often meant that she was not around to claim credit for her ideas.

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She was talking about dignity as a constitutional right protected in the 13th and 14th Amendments way before I started hearing Justice Kennedy and Justice Ginsburg talking about dignity. There’s a way in which, just as she just saw the inherent weakness in separate but equal, she was like, I’m not going to sit here and waste my time making equal facilities. This is about human dignity. There’s a way in which, in all the ways that she’s ahead of her time, she really sees the Constitution as a document that is promoting equal dignity long before Obergefell, long before Justice Kennedy is writing it in. That seems to me to be another way in which she’s just so boundlessly ahead of her time.

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Bell-Scott: Absolutely. So many of the signature rulings that we have seen recently go all the way back to Pauli’s notion of human dignity and human equality and authentic selfhood. That undergirds Brown v. Board of Education, it undergirds the civil rights work of the ‘60s and her fight to ensure that Title VII would include sex as a category in that bill. She almost single-handedly saved that by drafting a memorandum that was sent to every congressperson and to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. She and a network of women activists got that memorandum to First Lady Lady Bird Johnson with a cover letter in which Pauli Murray said women are being discouraged from speaking out about this, but I want you to know that the bill without the Sixth Amendment in it would mean that only Black men would have equal protection and not Black women.

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She was on edge until she got a note from Lady Bird Johnson’s social secretary, which said that Lady Bird had shared the argument with her husband, President Johnson, and that the amendment, the bill, would remain as it was.

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In the end, I can’t help but contrast her to RBG. RBG lashes herself to institutions. She lashes herself to the ACLU. She then lashes herself to the federal appeals court and then the Supreme Court. There’s a way in which Pauli gets really frustrated with institutions that aren’t moving fast enough, that are blinkered, that are just not getting it done quickly enough. I want you to walk me through this counterfactual, where if she had stuck with an institution, if she had said, I rise and fall with the courts or the universities or some institution, that this might have been an easier road for her. Or if, in the end, the institution of the law itself wasn’t enough for her the way it was enough for RBG.

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Cohen: The easy road was really not of much interest to Pauli Murray. Pauli was super interested in being at the vanguard of all kinds of different movements. Once others joined in and wanted to take up that fight, then Pauli was ready to move on to the next thing. I mean, we love the moment in our film where Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was a classmate of Pauli’s when Pauli was getting a doctorate at Yale Law School and Eleanor Holmes Norton was a JD student. Eleanor Holmes Norton and some of the other Black Yale Law Students were out there fighting for civil rights, as people were in the 1960s. By that point Pauli was most interested in talking about feminism, which was not a very well-known concept in the early ‘60s.

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Pauli liked being way ahead of the curve and was willing to do that maybe at the expense of becoming a central figure in a movement that Pauli stuck with over a course of decades. If Pauli started something and then it moved forward, with or without Pauli, then that’s still a victory.

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Bell-Scott: It is important for us to remember that the opportunities RBG had were not available to Pauli. RBG did get into Harvard, Pauli was denied. She very much wanted to become a law professor. She did not have that opportunity. When she finally returned from Africa and finished the law degree, the doctorate in law at Yale, she finally got a job in a university teaching, but she never got to teach law full-time. She taught law part-time at Boston University. Because of her restlessness, she was always moving forward, but there were doors that were closed to her. And she was not willing to keep waiting and agitating to get the doors completely open. She cracked the door, and RBG and other women and other people of color were eventually able to walk through. We cannot forget the limitations placed upon her by the strictures of the time.

To hear their entire discussion, listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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