A cradle-to-grave account about one of the most interesting, accomplished, and controversial figures in 20th-century America who is far too little known.
Pauli Murray (1910-1985), who fought valiantly against Jim Crow prejudice, came to be known as “Jane Crow” due to her mixed-race heritage, her female gender, and her own perception of herself as transgender. As Rosenberg (Emerita, History/Barnard Coll.; Changing the Subject: How the Women of Columbia Shaped the Way We Think About Sex and Politics, 2004, etc.) shows, Murray, never at ease psychologically, descended from a long line of mentally ill family members, and orphaned early—her father was murdered, and her mother was rendered frail by repeated childbirth—overcame countless obstacles throughout her life. She left her racially charged North Carolina home to earn a college degree in New York City, bounced back from being rejected for graduate studies at the University of North Carolina because of her part-black heritage (even though her white great-great-grandfather had served on the governing board there), graduated from Howard University Law School, and began influencing public policy outside academia. Murray’s work on discrimination influenced lawyers and judges to desegregate public schools, protect the constitutional rights of women, and move toward protecting other minorities as well. She considered herself queer in terms of sexuality, often dressing so that distinguishing her gender proved difficult; in terms of gay and queer rights in general, she was clearly way ahead of her time. Later in life, Murray inspired Betty Friedan and others to co-found the National Organization for Women, smashed academic barriers at Brandeis University, and earned ordination in the Episcopal Church as the first female black priest. One of Rosenberg’s most fascinating extended anecdotes illuminates Murray’s struggle to write and publish her 1956 memoir, Proud Shoes. She gained attention as a memoirist around the same time that Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin were also breaking racial and class barriers as authors.
Assiduous research and clear prose give Murray her due.