Meet The Forgotten Woman Who Forever Changed The Lives Of LGBTQ+ Workers

By | June 27, 2020

As a civil rights activist, feminist and attorney, Pauli Murray influenced Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And with a single word in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she bent the arc of the moral universe.


Pauli Murray was in yet another fight of her life. In 1963, Congress was bitterly divided over a single word in the most important piece of civil rights legislation in a century. Murray, a 53-year-old lawyer with short hair and glasses, was tasked with convincing the no voters to say yes to including the word “sex” in the Civil Rights Act. Some activists feared that its inclusion would shift the focus away from the rights of Black Americans and onto white women. Worse, it might sink the bill entirely. 

A brilliant legal strategist, Murray penned a moving memo explaining why “sex” was integral to the goal of the bill. Without it, she wrote, only half the Black population would be protected, since Black women—millions of whom were already working in America and supporting families—could still be fired due to their gender. “It is exceedingly difficult for a Negro woman to determine whether or not she is being discriminated against because of race or sex,” Murray wrote. “These two types of discrimination are so closely intertwined and so similar that Negro women are uniquely qualified to affirm their interrelatedness.” 

The memo was passed around to every member of Congress, and eventually made its way to Lady Bird Johnson, who shared it with her husband, President Lyndon B. Johnson. When the vote came around, the word “sex” remained in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, backfiring on Representative Howard Smith, the pro-segregationist from Virginia, who had recommended inserting the word. Smith may have wanted to use the word to sink the bill, but for feminists it all went according to plan.

“There’s this pernicious myth that the sex amendment was some kind of joke, or fluke, or a poison pill that was designed to sink the Civil Rights Act,” says Serena Mayeri, a professor of law and history at the University of Pennsylvania, “when in fact it really was the product of the deliberate efforts by advocates for women.”

TRAILBLAZING: THOUGH SHE FACED MANY OBSTACLES BECAUSE OF HER GENDER AND RACE, MURRAY NEVER STOPPED FIGHTING FOR EQUALITY. IN 1946, MADEMOISELLE MAGAZINE HONORED HER AS ONE OF THE YOUNG WOMEN OF THE YEAR. FROM LEFT: BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES (2); JOHN LENT/AP

Murray was the one tasked with getting enough groups on the same side so that the legislation would pass. “She reframed the sex amendment as being really crucial to racial justice,” Mayeri says, “not antithetical to it.”

Murray was no stranger to bridging disparate worlds. A pioneering Black woman, she was a lawyer, a feminist, a civil rights activist, a priest, a poet, and a bender of gender norms. For most of her life, she continuously pushed back against the labels and social stereotypes others placed on her. She founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)with Bayard Rustin in the early 1940s and influenced, among others, a young Martin Luther King, and the National Organization for Women (NOW) with Betty Friedan in the 1960s. For decades, she was pen pals with Eleanor Roosevelt, and later in life became the first Black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. She was later sainted.

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Throughout her many lives, Murray wasn’t just on the forefront of history, she was constantly making it. “It may be that when historians look back on twentieth-century America,” historian Susan Ware once argued, “all roads will lead to Pauli Murray.”

And the seeds of activism that she planted many decades ago are still bearing fruit. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court used the very word that Murray helped cement into the Civil Rights Act of 1964—“sex”—to provide workplace protection for LGBTQ+ individuals, a group with which Murray strongly identified.

DREAMER: IN ADDITION TO HER GROUNDBREAKING CIVIL RIGHT WORK, MURRAY LATER BECAME THE FIRST BLACK WOMAN ORDAINED AS AN EPISCOPALIAN PRIEST IN 1977. FROM LEFT: BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES; BARTON SILVERMAN/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX; AP

Even from a very young age, Pauli Murray was always challenging the status quo. “She’s a person that lived an intersectional life before the term even existed,” says David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. 

At eight, Murray, who grew in Durham, North Carolina, in the home of her aunt Pauline and her maternal grandparents, insisted on shopping in the boys’ section of clothing stores. Her aunt allowed her to wear a broad-brimmed soldier’s hat, everywhere except church. Being a young, mixed-race girl growing up in the Jim Crow South was hard enough, but Murray was also exploring her sexual and gender identity. It’s why the willful young trailblazer was “ahead of her time” but also why much of her work was done “behind the scenes,” says Rosalind Rosenberg, author of Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray.

“There are people who imagine original ideas, and there are other people who popularize original ideas,” says Clayborne Carson, a history professor at Stanford University and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. “And the two are not always the same.”

Murray was an originator. Her activism was large in part inspired by her maternal grandfather, Robert Fitzgerald, who fought for the North in the Civil War and taught Murray about the early abolitionists that fueled the movement long before the war began. After graduating from Hunter College in New York, Murray encountered the first major obstacle of her career.

In 1938, she was intent on attending graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but being Black prevented her from admission. “Under the resolutions of the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina, members of your race are not admitted to the University,” read the rejection letter from Dean W.W. Pierson. Unsatisfied, Murray wrote to the school’s president, Frank Porter Graham, and sent a copy of her application to NAACP leader Walter White. Inspired by her plight, he then passed the information along to the NAACP’s chief legal counsel, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.


“Lionesses like her make it possible for me to say to a coworker, ‘My wife and I are going on a vacation,’” says Lule Demmissie, president of Ally Invest.


Though the case earned national attention, Murray’s efforts did not earn her admission to the school. (It wasn’t until 1951 that the first Black student was accepted at UNC.) In 1940, she protested transit segregation in Virginia, and got herself arrested for refusing to sit on broken seats at the back of the bus—fifteen years before Rosa Parks.

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Around the same time, after enrolling at Howard Law School—where, as the only woman, she would go on to finish first in her class—Murray got involved with the Workers Defense League to help raise money for a Virginia sharecropper named Odell Waller who was sentenced to death for shooting, in what he claimed to be self-defense, the white male owner of the land he farmed. After graduating from Howard, in 1944, she was hoping to continue studying law at Harvard University, but was rejected again—this time for being a woman. That setback eventually helped form the basis for her co-written 1964 work Jane Crow and the Law: Sex discrimination and Title VII, which drew parallels between sex- and race-based discrimination.

“While these attempts all failed, they inspired later activists,” says Rosenberg. Thurgood Marshall would reference Murray’s early attempts to end school segregation and specifically rely on her States’ Laws on Race and Color to fuel successful efforts to end Jim Crow. He also applied many of Murray’s ideas while arguing Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case that deemed segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm and other second-wave feminists also leaned heavily on Murray to found NOW in 1966.

HIDDEN IDENTITY: “SHE DID FEEL LIKE SHE HAD A MAN’S BRAINS IN A WOMAN’S BODY,” RECALLS HER GREAT-NIECE, “[BUT] SHE WAS NOT VERY OPEN ABOUT IT.” AP IMAGES

“People like Betty Friedan benefited from her,” says Carson. “She was the creative legal thinker for many. But she could never have the prominence of a Thurgood Marshall. She could never rise up the ranks because of the limitations of all parts of her identity.”

Murray was intimately aware of the limitations placed on her because of her gender, and throughout most of her life she questioned whether she was even a woman. She continued to wear the masculine clothing of her youth, often getting mistaken for a man. Throughout her life she wrote letters to her Aunt Pauline, referring to herself as a “boy-girl” and a man trapped in a woman’s body. As a young person, Murray researched cutting-edge hormone treatments that were being done in Europe, and asked doctors in America if she could also try hormone therapy. The answer was always no. 

Though Murray was briefly married to a man, her most enduring romantic relationship was with Irene Barlow, a white woman she met while an associate at the esteemed New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, where Murray worked as an attorney and Barlow worked as the office manager. Though they were never able to live together, says Barbara Lau, director of the Pauli Murray Project at the Duke Human Rights Center, “they had dogs together, and they had cars together, and they went on vacations together.” 

Yet despite the fact that Murray was a trailblazer in the feminist and civil rights movements, and her relationship with Barlow, she was reluctant to explicitly define her sexuality. Karen Ross, Murray’s great-niece with whom she lived with for five years, recalls that Murray never discussed her personal life. “She did feel like she had a man’s brains in a woman’s body,” Ross says, “[but] she was not very open about it.” 

It took death to finally set Pauli Murray free. Towards the end of her battle with pancreatic cancer in the early 1980s, she donated her files to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, including notes about how she struggled with her sexuality and gender identity. “She chose to keep those in her archives,” says Sarah Azaransky, the author of a book about Murray, The Dream Is Freedom. “That choice is important, I think.”

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It was a side of her life that even Murray’s family didn’t see until her death. “The family feels like they’ve gone to the Schlesinger library and [they’ve] pulled her out of the closet,” Ross says. 

So it’s somewhat ironic that Murray, who was so reticent about her sexuality, laid the foundation for one of the biggest pieces of LGBTQ+ rights decisions in recent history. 

As an attorney at the offices of Paul Weiss, Murray briefly crossed paths with a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was working at the firm as a summer associate. This wasn’t the last time their lives would intersect. Murray’s work deeply influenced Ginsburg in her years as a lawyer at the ACLU. When Ginsburg famously argued against gender discrimination in front of the Supreme Court in 1971, she drew on Murray’s groundbreaking legal work with the Fourteenth Amendment to make her case. Murray was so influential to Ginsburg’s work, that she listed her as a coauthor on her brief to the Supreme Court, despite the fact that Murray hadn’t done any work on the case. 

Ginsburg “has always credited Murray with originating the building blocks of that strategy,” says Mayeri, the Penn law professor.

LEGAL LEGACY: BUILDING ON MURRAY’S WORK ON THE 1964 CIVIL RIGHTS ACT, THE SUPREME COURT UPHELD THE RIGHTS OF LGBTQ+ EMPLOYEES IN JUNE 2020. FROM LEFT: ERIK MCGREGOR/GETTY IMAGES; BILL CLARK/GETTY IMAGES (2)

Almost 50 years later, Murray’s scholarship was debated before the Supreme Court again. When three employees were fired for being gay or transgender, the lawsuit against their employers was presented to the high court in October 2019. On June 15, six justices—including Chief Justice John Roberts—ruled in favor of the employees, effectively banning workplace discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity. The opinion, delivered by conservative Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch, hinged on the word “sex” in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that Pauli Murray had fought so hard to include.

“Because discrimination on the basis of homosexuality or transgender status requires an employer to intentionally treat individual employees differently because of their sex,” Gorsuch wrote in his majority opinion, this discrimination violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Ruth Bader Ginsburg concurred.

There’s no way to know if Murray ever anticipated that her own work would protect an identity that she struggled to embrace, but as Lau says, “Pauli understood intersectionality before we had that word, so I wouldn’t write it off.” 

It’s a bittersweet reality. Murray may not have been able to fully enjoy the fruits of her labor in her lifetime, but LGBTQ+ women of color in modern corporate America owe her a great debt.

“Lionesses like her make it possible for me to say to a coworker, ‘My wife and I are going on a vacation,’” says Lule Demmissie, president of Ally Invest, who identifies as Black and queer. “She showed that the ceilings we place on ourselves must be lifted by us, as much as by the law.”

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