Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 74-77
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Pauli Murray and the 'Juncture of Women's Liberation and Black Liberation'
Susan M. Hartmann
"Because black women have an equal stake in women's liberation and black liberation, they are key figures at the juncture of these two movements. . . . By asserting a leadership role in the growing feminist movement, the black woman can help to keep it allied to the objectives of black liberation while simultaneously advancing the interests of all women." 1
Our understanding of second-wave feminism as a predominantly white, middle-class movement that inadequately addressed the particular needs and interests of women of color—and our deserved criticism of that failure—has obscured African American women's unique contributions to the struggle for women's rights in the 1960s and 1970s. Uncomfortable in white-dominated feminist organizations, some black women pursued feminist goals in other venues, most notably in white, male-dominated, liberal organizations with an established commitment to racial justice. They demonstrated the inextricable connections between their concerns as African Americans and as women and helped convert key liberal organizations into allies of the women's movement. 2
No woman was more important than Pauli Murray in integrating women's rights and civil rights. The descendant of both a slave and a slave owner, Murray remembered her first experience of sex discrimination to have occurred at Howard University in the early 1940s, where "the racial factor was removed . . . and the factor of gender was fully exposed." Sex discrimination in the legal profession was a bread-and-butter matter for this single woman who struggled to support herself in the 1940s and 1950s, although she could not always determine "whether I was being discriminated against because of race or sex." A lifelong civil rights activist, she expressed dismay at the black freedom struggle's exclusion of women in visible roles. 3
Murray's direct involvement in the women's rights movement began with her work for the President's Commission on the Status of Women, where she helped bridge the decades-old conflict among women activists over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Her argument that constitutional reform was not necessary because the Supreme Court could be persuaded to apply the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment [End Page 74] brought her into a network of white feminists in Washington, D.C. and to the attention of Dorothy Kenyon, a longtime white member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) executive board who was seeking a similar means of attacking sex discrimination. Sponsored by Kenyon and civil rights leader James Farmer, Murray joined the ACLU executive board in 1965, beginning a seven-year partnership with Kenyon that resulted in the ACLU's adoption of women's rights as a key priority.
Murray's central contribution was to use her experience and authority as a black woman to demonstrate that race and sex discrimination were inextricably linked. Campaigning to add sex discrimination to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she wrote to Lady Bird Johnson that opponents of the amendment tended "to intimidate women from speaking out on this issue on the ground that by doing so they will endanger the larger civil rights legislation. As both a Negro and a woman, I feel this point of view is erroneous." Once Title VII passed with the sex discrimination amendment intact, Murray elaborated on the "integral relation" between sex and race discrimination when she challenged the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), established to enforce the law, for belittling the seriousness of sex discrimination. Writing to Commissioner Richard Graham in March 1966, she insisted, "Unless the sex provision is vigorously enforced and the relationship between the two types of discrimination, race and sex, fully recognized, only half of the Negro population is protected." Black women's greater need to be self-supporting meant that they shouldered a "heavier economic burden, proportionately, than their white counterparts." Therefore, enforcing the sex provision was critical to their material security. 4