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Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Legendary Feminist: Pauli Murray

This article was first published as "Three United States Feminists--A Personal Tribute," Jewish Affairs 53.1 (Johannesburg, South Africa, 1998): 37.

Click on the feminists' names to read more about them.

Pauli MurrayAnna Pauline (Pauli) Murray was born in Baltimore in 1910, the product of several generations of intermixtures of African, European, and Native American stock. When Pauli was three, her mother died, and Pauli was adopted by her maternal Aunt Pauline. Her aunt took her home to Durham, North Carolina, where Pauli was raised in the home of her maternal grandparents, Cornelia and Robert Fitzgerald. Robert and his brother, who owned the only brickyard in town, were among the wealthiest and most prominent African American families in Durham in the 1890s and early 1900s. Pauli remained in Durham until she graduated from Hillside High School and left to attend Hunter College in New York City.

Pauli became an attorney, a college professor and administrator, a crusader for the rights of minorities and women, a founder of NOW, a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, a prize-winning author and poet, a priest -- and a dynamo. She was a freedom rider in the early 1940s and was arrested for protesting segregated seating on interstate buses. She practiced law in New York City, was a senior lecturer at the Ghana School of Law in Accra, a professor at Brandeis University, and vice president of Benedict College in South Carolina. She had many firsts in her life. She was the only woman in the June 1944 graduating class at Howard University Law School, where she was first in her class. She was the first African American to be awarded a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from the Yale University Law School, the first African American woman to serve as assistant attorney general of the State of California, and the first African American woman to publish a lead article in a law review of an American law school (the University of California Law Review). At the age of sixty-six, she was ordained as the first African American woman priest of the Episcopal Church.

I met Pauli when she was a consultant in the research department at the EEOC, and we became friends and colleagues in the women's movement. She was due to be named general counsel of the EEOC when the Johnson White House learned that she had been associated with left-wing organizations in her youth. Therefore, in an act attesting to McCarthyism's continued existence, she was denied the general counsel's position. Inexplicably, she was offered the position of deputy general counsel instead. Apparently, the threat she would pose to the security of the country as general counsel would dissipate in the deputy's slot. Pauli turned it down. She never cared for second place in anything.

My most memorable encounter with Pauli occurred in 1980, long after we had both left the EEOC. It involved a pin that had belonged to a suffragist named Betsy Graves Reyneau, whose paternal grandfather had been chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. Ms. Reyneau was in the first group of Silent Sentinels arrested on July 14, 1917, for picketing the White House for suffrage. Five months later, at a mass meeting at the Belasco Theater in Washington, DC, Ms. Reyneau was one of eighty-one suffragists who were honored for serving time in the Occoquan Workhouse or the District of Columbia Jail. Katherine Houghton Hepburn, a member of the NWP Board, and the mother of the future actress Katherine Hepburn, pinned a silver pin on each of these suffragists. This pin, a tiny replica of a prison cell door with a chain across it, was known as the Jailed for Freedom or Prisoner of Freedom pin. It had been designed by Alice Paul and was based on the Holloway Brooch. That brooch, designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, had been given to British suffragists who were jailed in England's Holloway Prison. Alice Paul herself had been jailed in Holloway and given a Holloway Brooch.

Ms. Reyneau, who was white, went on to become a distinguished painter of African American leaders. Pauli Murray met her at Howard University, where Ms. Reyneau was completing an oil portrait of the university's president and Pauli was a law student. They became friends, and, when Ms. Reyneau died, her daughter Marie gave the pin to Pauli as a memento. It became one of Pauli's most cherished possessions. After Pauli had kept the pin for a while, she began a tradition of giving it to a feminist, who was to keep it for a time and then to pass it on to another feminist. By 1980, the pin had been given to Aileen Hernandez, the first woman and the first African American woman commissioner at the EEOC; Elizabeth Duncan Koontz, the first African American woman director of the Woman's Bureau; Catherine East, who held senior staff posts with every Presidential advisory commission on women from 1962 to 1967; and Mary Eastwood, an attorney at the Department of Justice and a founder of NOW.

In 1980, at a feminist dinner in Washington, Mary Eastwood passed the pin on to me for my work at the EEOC and as a founder of NOW. My principal emotion when I received it was guilt. I felt there were any number of people more worthy of the honor. The following morning I called Pauli, who had been unable to attend the dinner, and shared my feelings with her. She had a one-word response: "Enjoy." And that's what I did during the time I had the pin.

After Pauli died in 1985, Catherine East, Mary Eastwood, and I, with the permission of Pauli's executrix, donated the pin to NWP. Out of the original eighty-one Prisoner of Freedom pins, we are aware of the existence of only three today. Two are in the Smithsonian Institution. The third hangs on the wall in the entrance hall of NWP's headquarters in a place of honor.

© 1998 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes