The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Fighting Jane Crow

Pauli Murray might be one of the most influential but little-known figures in modern American history. Born in 1910 in Baltimore, Murray, who was a prominent lawyer and activist, went on to shape American law, society and culture throughout much of the 20th century. Publicly, Murray is remembered for contributions to feminist legal thought and in particular, the concept of “Jane Crow,” which recognized how black women struggle with racism and sexism. Meanwhile, in private, Pauli Murray’s fluid gender and sexual identity clashed with the era’s rigid categories.

All of this made Pauli Murray a steadfast proponent of equality and a committed fighter against injustice of all kinds. It even led Murray to the ordained ministry, where the fight for a reconciled humanity could be waged in the spiritual realm. So for that reason — and many more — this week on BackStory, Ed and Joanne explore the life and legacy of Pauli Murray. 

*Note: Pauli Murray often self-identified as a woman and used “she” and “her” pronouns. You can see this in public writings, like Murray’s autobiography. But, in private, Murray grappled with a nuanced gender identity. This identity was often at odds with the strict gender and sexual constructs of the 20th century, and it was often in flux. For that reason, the question of pronouns is a complicated one in the case of Pauli Murray. So after careful consideration, we decided to opt out of using any pronouns when referring to Pauli Murray throughout the episode. Instead, you’ll hear us say “Pauli Murray,” “Murray” or sometimes just “Pauli.” But you’ll hear our guests alternate between different pronouns. We’ve let each guest decide for themselves which pronoun they think best fits when talking about Pauli.

*Correction: In this episode, Joanne and Ramona refer to the Chapel Hill Church where Pauli Murray preached in February 1977 as “Church of the Holy Cross.” It is actually “Chapel of the Cross.” We apologize for the error.