The 'Black, Queer, Feminist' Legal Trailblazer You've Never Heard Of : Code Switch Pauli Murray championed the fight for gender equality, achieved sainthood and helped desegregate schools, all while pushing against Mad Men-era social norms.

The 'Black, Queer, Feminist' Legal Trailblazer You've Never Heard Of

Dr. Pauli Murray was an unheralded pioneer who argued civil rights cases challenging discrimination based on race and gender. AP hide caption

toggle caption

Dr. Pauli Murray was an unheralded pioneer who argued civil rights cases challenging discrimination based on race and gender.


Dr. Pauli Murray is hardly the household name that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is, but a recent profile in Salon argues she should be. As Salon's Brittney Cooper explains, Murray, who graduated from the Howard University School of Law in 1944, was one of the first lawyers to argue that the Equal Protection Clause's approach to racial discrimination should apply equally to gender-based discrimination.

Ginsburg credits Murray's work as the inspiration for her 1971 brief in Reed v. Reed, which ruled that women could not be excluded as administrators of personal estates based on their gender. The Supreme Court case marked the first time that the Equal Protection Clause was applied to sex discrimination, and has served as precedent for many arguments in the decades since then. Ginsburg found Murray's prior arguments so important to her own that she elected to put Murray down as an honorary co-author on the milestone brief.

In Cooper's piece and other profiles, there's no end to examples of Murray's trailblazing, both in the legal world and far beyond:

  • She was arrested in 1940 for refusing to move to the back of a bus, protesting a Virginia law requiring segregation on public transportation — 15 years before Rosa Parks' similar protest sparked a bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.
  • In 1944, Murray graduated at the top of her class from the Howard University School of Law, where she encountered gender discrimination from faculty and fellow students. It was there that she coined the term "Jane Crow" to refer to sex discrimination — the sister of Jim Crow.
  • Mademoiselle magazine named her "Woman of the Year" in 1947.
  • The NAACP, then led by Thurgood Marshall, used arguments from a law school seminar paper by Murray as part of the organization's legal strategy in Brown v. Board of Education. He later called her book States' Laws on Race and Color "the Bible for civil rights lawyers."
  • She was appointed to President John F. Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women.
  • She co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1966.
  • She was the first African-American woman to be ordained a priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1977.

A black feminist lesbian who "favored a masculine-of-center gender performance during her 20s and 30s," she dedicated her work to challenging preconceived notions of race, gender, sexuality and religion. But, as Cooper notes, Murray isn't well-known or celebrated outside academic circles:

"The civil rights struggle demanded respectable performances of black manhood and womanhood, particularly from its heroes and heroines, and respectability meant being educated, heterosexual, married and Christian. Murray's open lesbian relationships and her gender nonconforming identity disrupted the dictates of respectability, making it easier to erase her five decades of important intellectual and political contributions from our broader narrative of civil rights."

Learn more about Dr. Pauli Murray by checking out Cooper's article here.

Editor's note at 1:45pm, February 19: After publishing this piece, we realized we neglected to credit Salon in the headline of the piece. We've added quotes to fix this.