Review: ‘Pauli Murray: A Personal and Political Life’

Troy R. Saxby, casual academic at the University of Newcastle, offers an intimate, engaging look at an increasingly recognized twentieth-century human rights advocate in Pauli Murray: A Personal and Political Life. Pauli Murray’s personal life was as turbulent and winding as her political life was significant to American justice movements. She experienced great personal loss, poverty, discrimination, health problems, and struggles with sexuality and gender identity from the 1910s to the mid-1980s.[1] Saxby’s biography seeks to “connect Murray’s inner life with her incredibly active public life,” which included civil rights activism (first pushing for the integration of the University of North Carolina), helping found the National Organization for Women to work for gender equality, becoming an influential lawyer, professor, and author, and later being the first black woman to serve as an Episcopal priest.[2] Her writings and legal arguments influenced Brown v. Board of Education (and other NAACP battles) and Reed v. Reed (the 1971 case that first applied the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to sex), broadening rights for blacks, women, and, after her death, LGBTQ Americans.[3] Considering Murray’s private struggles, Saxby argues, “is essential to understanding Murray,” with her early experiences, her most intimate feelings and thoughts, “shaping her…aspirations.”[4] This of course is a mere truism. All people are molded by prior experience, circumstances, and so on. Still, the impact Murray’s private life had on her public service is a fascinating history, and was lacking in the historiography.[5] Let us consider what motivated Pauli Murray.

One intriguing aspect of Murray’s life was her early refusal to cooperate with unjust systems. As a child in 1910s America, racial oppression led Murray to “hate George Washington, mumble allegiance to the flag, resist standing for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” and more.[6] She “boycotted segregated facilities — instead of taking public transport, she rode her bike.”[7] Not only does this foreshadow Murray’s important work for civil rights, it suggests that her central motivations were already operating, or at least in development, at seven years old, typically an age of conformity. Thus, an exploration of what drove Murray should start there.

From Saxby’s text, it could be argued that early feelings of alienation played a role — this is more of a subconscious motivation, but important nonetheless. Segregation and sexism of course “othered” the young Murray, but there is much else. She was separated from her father and many siblings at age three, after her mother’s death; she fought feelings of abandonment; caretakers like Aunt Pauline and her grandfather were not affectionate; Murray’s darker complexion stood out in her new family, and she felt like an outsider; her complexion was lighter than most of her classmates, however, drawing mockery; the family’s middle-class values kept her at a distance from neighborhood kids; “Pauli also felt different from her classmates because she did not have visible parents”; she was even left-handed, unlike most students and adults.[8] At every turn, Saxby writes, “Pauli Murray stands apart, somehow ‘other.’”[9] A complex, constant sense of difference helped mold Murray into a child who could rebel against nationalism and segregation, among other things: “Pauli’s rebellious streak, a hallmark of her adult life, emerged at school — such was her ability to turn a classroom to chaos that one of her primary school teachers would take Pauli with her whenever she was called away from the classroom.”[10] The field of psychology has shown that children lacking a sense of belonging often act out (and struggle with poor mental health).[11] Whereas other children without her experiences might go along with hands over hearts and direction toward the back of a public bus, Murray’s history of alienation led to resistance.

There were of course positive influences as well, more conscious motivations, such as her grandparents’ emphasis on black pride and uplift, and Aunt Pauline’s assurances that Murray was destined for greatness.[12] The Fitzgeralds in fact had long “avoided any contact with white people if it meant losing dignity…”[13] America and its segregation had previously been questioned and experienced. There are many factors that push us to do what we do. But Murray’s view that “in some ways, I was alien” dominates the text, especially as she becomes an adult and her feelings toward women and her interest in passing as a man develop.[14] She was, at the same time, rejected from one college for being a woman and from another for being black.[15] Murray remained The Other in myriad ways. This fact contributed to her mental health challenges.[16] That it also pushed her toward activism seems a sensible supposition: Otherness impacted her behavior as a child (so it might do the same in adulthood), and it could only be rectified through policy change. Murray’s sense of difference that contributed to behavioral nonconformity against unjust systems as a child persisted, rose to a more conscious place, and manifested anew in work in the black struggle and the feminist movement — as an adult, Murray could work to create a society with greater inclusion for herself and others. She never felt like she belonged, so she built a world with more belonging.

Overall, Pauli Murray conjures many musings on the nature of history and biography, which undergraduate and graduate students may find interesting. For instance, environment and prior experiences motivating an individual is a given, as stated, but it is also open to interpretation. What factors were at play, and how influential each was, can be argued at length, based on historical sources. Other historians may see the Fitzgeralds’ rebellion against segregation as a much more significant factor on Murray’s activist path than her sense of being an outsider. One may instead emphasize the constant tragedies of her life and consider potential connections to social oppression, such as her father being killed by a white man in an insane asylum when she was ten.[17] As we have seen, conscious and subconscious drivers can be theorized and posited, their strengths speculatively compared. The forces that molded historical actors are as powerful as they are elusive.

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[1] Troy R. Saxby, Pauli Murray: A Personal and Political Life (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020), xiv-xv.

[2] Ibid., xiii, xvii, 68-76.

[3] Ibid, 145-146, 212-213, 249-251.

[4] Ibid., xiv, xvi.

[5] Ibid., xv-xvi.

[6] Ibid., 23.

[7] Ibid., 24.

[8] Ibid., 6-7, 9-12, 15-16, 20, 23,    

[9] Ibid., xvii.

[10] Ibid., 23.

[11] Kelly-Ann Allen, DeLeon L. Gray, Roy F. Baumeister, and Mark R. Leary, “The Need to Belong: A Deep Dive into the Origins, Implications, and Future of a Foundational Construct,” Educational Psychology Review 34 (August 2021):

[12] Saxby, Pauli Murray, 21-22, 38.

[13] Ibid., 24.

[14] Ibid., 24, chapter 2, for instance 45-48.

[15] Ibid., 39, 70.

[16] Ibid., 65-68.

[17] Ibid., 35.