Today we welcome a guest post from Troy R. Saxby, author of Pauli Murray: A Personal and Political Life, out now from UNC Press.

The Rev. Dr. Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray (1910–1985) was a trailblazing social activist, writer, lawyer, civil rights organizer, and campaigner for gender rights. In the 1930s and 1940s, she was active in radical left-wing political groups and helped innovate nonviolent protest strategies against segregation that would become iconic in later decades, and in the 1960s, she cofounded the National Organization for Women (NOW). In addition, Murray became the first African American to receive a Yale law doctorate and the first black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest. Yet, behind her great public successes, Murray battled many personal demons, including bouts of poor physical and mental health, conflicts over her gender and sexual identities, family traumas, and financial difficulties. In this intimate biography, Troy Saxby provides the most comprehensive account of Murray’s inner life to date, revealing her struggles in poignant detail and deepening our understanding and admiration of her numerous achievements in the face of pronounced racism, homophobia, transphobia, and political persecution.

In this post, Saxby examines some of Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray’s many identities as well as the challenges that arise when labeling Murray’s selfhood in the present.

Pauli Murray is now available in hardcover and ebook editions.


Michel Foucault famously declared, “Do not ask me who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.” Foucault was alluding to the inevitability that our identities are changeable, contextual, and subjective, and yet discourses of power seek to make them appear fixed, immutable, and objective. Our identities are rigorously policed in many ways, including by the state, social mores, and by the language that we use.

Foucault’s statement and others like it occupied my mind with growing regularity while I completed a biography of Pauli Murray. Murray lived a trailblazing life, making contributions to furthering civil and women’s rights, literature, and theology while she also grappled with the socially constructed categories of race, gender, and sexuality. Writing Murray’s biography requires placing oneself at the center of Foucault’s statement, caught between her multifaceted life that defied easy categorizations, and how to convey that to a readership using language that inevitably carries with it the heavy weights of history and power.

From her earliest life, Murray’s name itself signaled a shifting self-concept: Murray’s parents named her Anna, though her baptism certificate stated her name as Anni. Regardless, her family used her middle name, Pauline, often shortening it to the nickname Lenie. In early adulthood Murray began using the other half of her middle name, Pauli. On her college record she used a different name again, Agnes Murray, in honor of her deceased mother. The certificate from a marriage that lasted only a few weeks created yet another name, Anna Pauline Wynn. She also referred to herself as “the dude,” “the vagabond,” “Pete,” and once told police her name was “Oliver Fleming.” In later life, Murray’s academic achievements and religious vocation earned her the titles Doctor and Reverend.

Murray’s many names reflect her life of diverse endeavors, and her consciousness of the signifying power in naming conventions (along with a willingness to openly defy those conventions). The various names Murray assumed over the course of her life also point to the broader problem of the labels we now apply to Murray when writing about her life. Murray’s personal preferences, anachronisms, and past and present terminology clash often and starkly. Such complicating problems permeated Murray’s life and our attempts to express the meaning we derive from her story.

As a child in the 1910s Murray chafed when classmates in her segregated primary school taunted her for being “Yaller.” This taunt, combined with the shame African Americans were made to feel, contributed to her assertion, based on a family legend, that she was Cherokee. After a lifetime of struggle against racism, Murray described herself as embodying the nation’s diversity, proudly proclaiming herself a “New World experiment” combining Irish, African, and Native American heritage.

At college in the late 1920s Murray also strongly embraced the uppercased “Negro,” in preference to the lowercased “colored.” When Negro fell out of favor in the 1960s, she continued to make the case for why it was preferable to “black,” and continued to do so right up until her death in 1985. For a contemporary readership, Negro seems jarring, which leaves biographers a dilemma of either applying a social identity label to Murray that she rejected or one that modern readers might find offensive. In my book, I capitalized Black as a compromise, since one of Murray’s main reasons for preferring Negro over black was that black lacked the dignity conveyed by a proper noun.

Murray’s many names reflect her life of diverse endeavors, and her consciousness of the signifying power in naming conventions (along with a willingness to openly defy those conventions).

Describing Murray’s sexual and gender identities also posed challenges. In the surviving evidence, Murray was reticent to identify with contemporary labels around her sexual orientation. Although a suite of terminology exists today, it seems both anachronistic to affix one or two modern terms to Murray and problematic when we can’t know whether she would have approved of them.

Affixing a modern term could also have the effect of categorizing and essentializing her identities. As Foucault said in his History of Sexuality, “Under the authority of a language that had been carefully expurgated so that it was no longer directly named, sex was taken charge of, tracked down as it were, by a discourse that aimed to allow it no obscurity, no respite.” I was conscious that my use of language around sex and sexuality reflected social constructions and silences derived from an attempt to police, modify, and control how Murray saw herself and enacted her identities, and that language itself can do violence to her ideas.

Where possible in my biography I used Murray’s own terminology or terminology used within the primary sources. When outdated terminology was used, I did not reproduce it out of an insensitivity to modern preferences, but a belief that using a variety of terminology can help convey that identities—and societal attitudes about them—are not necessarily fixed but are in a constant state of forming and reforming. Furthermore, recognizing the fluidity of language surrounding race, gender performativity, and sexual expression evokes the environments within which Murray formed understandings of herself and thus highlight the power dynamics of language and the stigmas Murray struggled against.

One notable area where I did not vary the terminology is in referring to Murray by the personal pronouns “she” and “her,” despite the fact that Murray engaged in what she called “experimentation on the male side” in the 1930s and 1940s, during a time when she strongly suspected her body contained undiscovered male attributes. Using gender neutral pronouns might have circumvented labeling Murray’s gender identity, however, it would not have conveyed that Murray lived in a highly gendered world. It would also overlook the fact that Murray identified as a woman for the last four decades of her life.

Challenges arise when labeling Murray’s selfhood, but by engaging with them we intuitively begin questioning traditional assumptions concerning the fixed nature of social categories such as race, gender, and sexuality. Of course, the historical insights we gain from Murray’s day to day lived experience often came at a huge cost to her. By her own description, she lived in a “confused world of uncertain boundaries,” and often seemed like a person desperately seeking labels that she positively embrace and use to resist, subvert, or open up space around discourses that sought to stigmatize her. Murray indeed led a remarkable life, not only for her deeds in public life, but also for her everyday battles with the society that tried to marginalize her.


Photo by Kirsten Woodforth

Troy R. Saxby is an academic and research officer at the University of Newcastle.