Black, queer, feminist, erased from history: Meet the most important legal scholar you’ve likely never heard of
Dr. Pauli Murray. The article (written by the wonderful Brittney Cooper) refers to Dr. Murray as a woman and "she," however, it seems clear that Murray was gender non-comforming and very likely a trans man without the language to define that identity.
But it is not just racism and sexism that shaped her experiences as an attorney, activist and civil rights leader in the early to mid-20th century. Pauli Murray was a gender nonconforming person, who favored a masculine-of-center gender performance during her 20s and 30s. She struggled both with her sense of gender identity and with her sexual attraction to women. She asked doctors to administer male hormones to her in the 1930s, and tried to convince one doctor to perform exploratory surgery to see if she had “secreted male genitals.”
Out of caution, I'm going to refer to Dr. Murray as the gender neutral "they."
Black, assigned female at birth, attracted to women, and trans, Dr. Murray graduated from Harvard Law as valedictorian in 1944 in spite of all the massive discrimination and obstacles they must have faced while being black, perceived as a woman, and not cishet.
Dr. Murray was the person who coined the term "Jane Crow" to describe their experiences as a target of both racial and gender discrimination. They were possibly the first to argue that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the constitution should be extended to cases of gender discrimination as well as racial.
Murray’s argument constituted what legal historian Serena Mayeri termed “reasoning from race,” in which race analogies were used to make clear the subordinate status of women. Though today we speak of these matters in the language of intersections, a term gleaned from legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, it is Pauli Murray’s initial invocation of the race-sex analogy for black women’s positionality within the law that is the most direct precursor to Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg also recently gave Dr. Murray a lot of credit for the first Supreme Court case in which the 14th Amendment was interpreted to include gender discrimination, resulting in a ruling in favor of a woman in spite of an old, misogynistic Idaho law that blatantly stated, "males must be preferred to females." Ginsberg voted in favor of the woman and credited Dr. Murray as a co-author of her brief.
Dr. Murray had many more accomplishments under their belt, according to Cooper, yet is oddly not well known except in specific academic circles. Gee, I wonder why-
Thanks, Keenan. You're right.
And thank you, Dr. Murray, for being amazing.