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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 68-73

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The Conjunction of Race and Gender

Rosalind Rosenberg

Few words have affected the course of American women's history more powerfully than Pauli Murray's favorite expression—"Jane Crow." In suggesting an analogy between race and gender, this simple formulation enabled women's rights advocates in the 1960s to extend the scope of civil rights laws to cover women. And yet many of the women who needed protection most benefited little from these changes. No one understood better the ways in which Jane Crow fell short than Murray, who formulated the concept while a student at Howard Law School in the early 1940s. The idea of Jane Crow perfectly expressed the "conjunction," as she later put it, of the multiple classifications that limited her freedom. 1 Denied admission to graduate school at the University of North Carolina because of her race in 1938, she had come to historically black Howard only to encounter prejudice anew because of her gender. To complicate matters, while the world at large perceived her to be a woman, and discriminated against her on that basis, she was convinced that she was really a man, forced by a trick of nature to occupy a woman's body. The conflicts Murray confronted would have paralyzed most people, but they fired her critical spirit, enabling her to make pioneering and still largely unrecognized contributions to the civil rights, women's, and gay rights movements.

The core of Murray's contribution was her skepticism about classification—a skepticism that she had intuited early in life but that she began to conceptualize clearly only after reaching Hunter College, New York City's public college for women, in 1928. A class in anthropology supplied her with "an antidote to the poisonous notion of superior and inferior races" and enabled her "to appreciate the infinitely rich variety of human cultures." Race, Murray learned, was an essentially arbitrary classification. 2 Murray's opposition to racial classification developed further at Howard Law School, where she encountered a group of social scientists who were exploring the ways in which racial discrimination harmed African Americans. 3 For her senior thesis at Howard, Murray drew on this work to formulate a new approach to civil rights litigation, one that directly challenged the approach that her thesis advisor Leon Ransom had long advocated. 4

For over a decade, Ransom and other civil rights litigators had been chipping away at legally sanctioned segregation. Case by case, they had [End Page 68] challenged states to live up to the "separate but equal" standard set forth in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) by making separate public facilities truly equal. Nowhere had they succeeded. Nor could they, Murray believed, until they attacked segregation head on and declared that separate facilities were inherently unequal. State-imposed segregation, she argued, violated the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the laws in two ways. First, by using race as a basis for assigning legal rights, states resorted to "arbitrary and unreasonable classification." Belief in the natural inferiority of African Americans may once have enjoyed scientific sanction, she allowed, but a new consensus had emerged that race bore no consistent relationship to a person's intelligence, character, or even skin color. Moreover, Murray contended, segregation harmed Negroes by doing "violence to the personality of the individual affected." Even if the facilities made available to African Americans were just as good as those claimed by whites, the fact of being set apart created psychic harm that often prevented those discriminated against from making full use of their human potential. 5 When Murray finished her paper, she attached a cover letter to Ransom, which posed a pointed question: "now, how do I go about killing 'Jane Crow'—prejudice against sex." 6

Murray's preoccupation with "prejudice against sex," in common with her skepticism about racial classification, had its roots in her experience at Hunter College. Murray had found the all-female college to be a "natural training ground for feminism." 7 Assuming that feminism would also be welcome...


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