May 2019

Pauli Murray and the Pronominal Problem: a De-essentialist Trans Historiography

Murray, a legal theorist, attorney, civil rights activist, poet, feminist, and minister is attributable with ushering a new wave of feminist and adjacent thinking and shaping wide swaths of the U.S.’s modern civil rights legal landscape.Murray, a legal theorist, attorney, civil rights activist, poet, feminist, and minister is attributable with ushering a new wave of feminist and adjacent thinking and shaping wide swaths of the U.S.’s modern civil rights legal landscape.

by Naomi Simmons-Thorne

From Brown v. Board of Education and Reed v. Reed, the protected legal classes enshrined in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, down to the very concept of intersectionality, much of our modern legal and sociopolitical discourse is directly indebted to the intellectual futurity of a scantly known figure, the “pseudo-hermaphrodite” Pauli Murray.[1] Murray, a legal theorist, attorney, civil rights activist, poet, feminist, and minister is attributable with ushering a new wave of feminist and adjacent thinking and shaping wide swaths of the U.S.’s modern civil rights legal landscape. Some activist-scholars, including the author of this essay, have also been working to advance another view of Murray, one even less understood than Murray’s imprint on U.S. thought and jurisprudence. That is, the view that Murray was also an early transgender figure in American history. An outpouring of new historical data and the benefit of hindsight suggest as much. While modern scholars display unwillingness to accept such a historical interpretation, the true gravity of Murray’s life and intellectual contributions remains yet to be appreciated, much less fully understood.

Image 1: Photo of Pauli Murray courtesy of author.

When Murray died in 1985, he bequeathed to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard a vast personal archive. Replete with diaries, interviews, self-annotated medical records, personal letters and more—Murray’s papers may one day prove to be the U.S.’s largest and most complete reserve of trans historical primary sources. It is through the revelations discovered in these documents that historians and biographers such as Rosalind Rosenberg have come to conclude “had [Pauli Murray] been born several generations later, [Pauli] might have embraced a transgender identity.”[2] Immensely guarded, but certainly not uncommon given his time and public visibility, Murray through his archive, left the public with vast personal documentation of his perennial battle with gender dysphoria. Author-activist and Black feminist scholar Brittney Cooper has also echoed Rosenberg’s reading. In a 2017 video chat with the HuffPost Queer Voices column, she concurred “had the term existed in the 30s and 40s, Pauli Murray would have identified as a trans man.”[3]

Rosenberg and Cooper’s assessments are based on emerging interpretations of Murray’s life. New readings made possible through the growth of trans and queer studies, the scholarly embrace of intersectionality, new waves of trans and queer activism, and the sheer “breadth” and “depth” of the archives Pauli left behind.[4] Together, with historians like Simon D. Elin Fisher, Cooper and Rosenberg represent the most forward range of  views in an increasingly contentious historiographical debate: situating Murray’s unstable and contested perceptions of self into a historiographically coherent identity category. Up until recent, most scholars had not envisaged a need to critically interrogate the historiography and pronominal conventions germane to Murray’s scholarship. Resultingly, the past three decades have seen archival and preservation projects, library cataloguing conventions, historical writings, and the pronominal choices of activists, authors, biographers, and admirers mainstream a gender essentialist interpretation of Murray’s life and identity. That is, scholars have assigned to Murray the identity of a cisgender woman largely on the grounds of biological determinism.

With the exceptions of historians like Rosalind Rosenberg and Doreen Drury, scholars are rarely forthright with a firm historiographical position on this debate. More commonly, it is left for the reader to intuit through the historiographical conventions accepted by the author and the pronoun choices they make as a result. With her recent biography Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray (2017), historian Rosalind Rosenberg set a new precedent in Murray scholarship. She became the first biographer to directly address the problem of pronoun choice in historical reference to Murray. Anteceding Rosenberg’s disputation, scholars have unanimously historicized Murray as a cisgender woman, sometimes cumbersomely so,[5] but the use of ‘she-her-hers’ pronouns is ubiquitous in virtually all Murray scholarship with the rare exception of the current author. Spread across a variety of views, the historiographical positions on Murray’s gender identity can be consolidated into four groupings: scholars who assert that Pauli’s struggles with gender dysphoria contain no identity implications,[6] those who recognize Pauli’s gender dysphoria solely as a matter of  biographical accuracy,[7] scholars who find Murray’s trans masculinity interpretively significant but not enough to warrant upending conventional historiographical practices,[8] and lastly—those who believe Murray’s “boy-girl”[9] ambivalence to carry real implications for Murray scholarship, displaying a willingness to supplement certain long standing interpretations while ultimately keeping the traditional historiography intact.[10]

Murray biographer Rosalind Rosenberg represents the latter most position among these. In an epilogue to her Jane Crow biography entitled “A Note on Pronouns and Other Word Choices,” certainly a noteworthy first of its kind, Rosenberg writes: “In early drafts, I experimented with the use of male pronouns in writing about Murray,” but ultimately determined that to do so “would undercut the immensity of the struggle in which Murray was engaged and the significance of her contributions.”[11] Rosenberg then proceeds throughout the biography to use ‘she-her-hers’ pronouns in reference to Murray, predicated on the (quite preposterous) assertion that  retroactively validating Murray’s trans masculinity would nullify the psychological duress Murray experienced  having had his trans masculinity invalidated. If doing so would symbolize a nullification, failing to do so would represent yet another compounding surely? Under a subtitle labeled “The Continuing Torment of Gender” Rosenberg writes of Murray’s struggles at Howard University School of Law in 1942: “Although successful academically … Murray continued to suffer from extreme emotional distress. She could not dispel her feelings of gender dysphoria.”[12] The italic emphasis is mine, but the irony is entirely the result of the author’s poor reasoning. Such nonsensicalness pales in comparison however to some of the historiographical arguments marshalled elsewhere. On the former most end of the outlined positions is professors like Doreen Drury, who has fiercely criticized any attempts to render Murray, what she refers to as: “representative of [any] gender [or] sexual identity categories.”[13] On the face, Drury’s concerns might read as a rejection of the “static” and “monolithic” logics of “bounded categories,”[14] a call for a de-essentialist trans historiography, but rather implicitly, it merely represents a kind of alarmist response to a growing number of historical interpretations which situate Murray as trans or genderqueer.

Image 2: Courtesy Schlesinger Library / Radcliffe Institute / Harvard University.

Drury is echoed in journalists like Kathryn Schulz who believes a trans historical reading, in Murray’s case, “seems appropriate,” but that such “retroactive labelling can be troubling.”[15] Drury points out that “scholars have variously described [Pauli Murray] as a lesbian, a homosexual, or as a transgender person.”[16] She admonishes all of these views as conduits to “condensed representations”[17]—historiographical portraits all insufficient and equally wanting in some capacity. However marginal, there is a kind of insight operating here. It implies a lack of consensus with respects to how Murray ought to be situated through historical writing. Indeed, not a strong case against, but rather a solid case for a de-essentialist trans historiography. Notably, Drury’s alarmism does not confine itself to subtext. In other writings, Drury renders rather explicit her objections, as she would have it, to those who seek to “put … Murray to work” for their identity agendas.[18] Rather conveniently, Drury sees innocuous, apolitical, agenda-free, and value-neutral her historiographical decision to use ‘she-her-hers’ pronouns in historical reference to Murray but intuits alternative pronominal use and identity categorizations as radical strands of identity politics activism. With what we now know about Murray’s trans experience, his: (1) disidentification with his birth name Anna Pauline,[19] (2) preference for masculine attire,[20] (3) sufferings by the way of gender dysphoria,[21] (4) faith in his (later unsupported) claim of intersex status,[22]  (5) and decades long sojourner for hormone replacement therapy[23]— which pronominal position seems more radical in light of the evidence?

The support for Murray’s gender identity as a variant form of trans masculinity is becoming less disputable with each major published work. Despite this accumulating body of evidence however, Murray historiographers display little interest in greeting the growing data with complimentary historical methods and pronominal use. In fact, new arguments are even being developed to support the same antiquated traditions. A suggestive example of this can be found with the Pauli Murray Project—the country’s foremost center for Pauli Murray public engagement and historic preservation. Based out of Murray’s childhood home of Durham, North Carolina, the Murray Project celebrates the activist’s lifework and endeavors to acquaint the wider public with the inexhaustible contributions made by Murray to American social and political life.  In their exhibits and writings on his gender identity, the Murray Project is candid, commendably so, but holds a rather uncritical position that Murray’s “sense of male identification” merely dissipated as he aged.[24] Such a historiography not only enables and depicts as appropriate the continued use of ‘she-her-hers’ pronouns in reference to Murray, but it also places no new interpretive requirements on Murray’s preservationists, archivists, biographers and historians. In their telling, “[Pauli Murray] was ambitious professionally, outspoken politically, and personally attracted to women … She was more comfortable dressed in pants and she sought hormone treatment to help her resolve her conflicted gender identity,” but later on in life, “[Murray] embraced her female identity [and] became an outspoken feminist and champion for women’s rights.”[25]

Consolidating these historiographical positions, one thing becomes apparent. The pronominal problem in Murray scholarship is neither historical nor biographical, in the sense that they do not emerge from the facts of Murray’s life. Rather, the debate over Murray’s identity and reflective pronoun choices are problems of historiography, pragmatism, and of course, politics. It is historiographical in the sense that if scholars were willing to contend with a trans masculine Pauli Murray, such an enterprise would entail implications for both women’s history and feminist historical research methods. Conventional interpretations of Murray’s life and motivations would require rethinking, hard truths would need to be confronted, and some intellectual hallmarks of gender essentialist feminisms upended.[26] It is easier, for example, to attribute Murray’s tireless campaign against sexism to his essentialized womanhood than to consider the possibility that Murray’s indignation might have stemmed from his sense that as a man, he should not have been subjected. Scholars would need to rethink whether it remains appropriate to herald Murray as the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest or earn a doctorate from Yale Law School, and so on. As historian Simon D. Elin Fisher notes, the entire historiography of women-of-color feminist thought would need to be reinterpreted, if not outright rewritten.[27] There is also pragmatic concerns. Being seen as advancing a transgender agenda could see funds, access, and support revoked from preservation projects, archives, commemorative buildings and centers and the like. But moreover, feminist historical thinking simply remains highly committed to gender essentialism—the observation of a rigid gender binary and the locating of women research subjects on the grounds of biological determinism. Surely, new methods would have to be devised.

Murray’s identity, whatever it may have been, existed on the continuum of a trans masculinity. What does not exist unfortunately are mainstream historiographical methods for situating historical figures whose gender identities may have been nonconforming. This is the very impetus behind the concept of transgender, as well as the foundations of any would be de-essentialist trans historiography. Does this mean that under a de-essentialist historiography Pauli Murray would no longer be relevant to women’s history? Certainly not. Rather, a de-essentialist trans historiography argues that women’s history ought to undergo de-essentialization in order to fit the expressions and identities of all of those who’ve contributed to it. That means moving towards a historiography where the governing logic does not require the essentializing of trans men, and the outright omission of trans women in order to maintain the integrity of its disciplinary confines.

The objective of a de-essentialist trans historiography is to compliment the growing historical interest in transgender and gender nonconforming subjects with rich methodological and theoretical foundations. The work of scholar C. Riley Snorton for example is pioneering in this direction.[28] These de-essentialist methods would certainly retain relevance to, but are not designed with the historical study of self-identified transgender figures in mind. Rather, the methods that are missing, are methods designed to enrich our analysis and historical studies of transgender figures who: (1) neither identified as trans* as well as (2) subjects whose social location(s) might have predated or prevented the use of such forms of classification. The life of Murray represents a fortuitous case study in this respect. 

Hence, I argue for a trans historiography that de-essentializes, intervenes, and adopts a more rigorous study of trans disidentification. The importance is not in ascertaining Murray’s true, essential gender identity but to interrupt the logic of biological determinism and the constraints of cissexism operating historically. I interpret my use of ‘he-him-his’ pronouns and Elin Fisher’s use of ‘s/he’ as one of the many historiographical methods capabale of facilitating this process.[29]

Given the rigid enforcement of the gender binary, we do not, nor will we ever know, Murray’s true gender identity. What we do know is that Pauli Murray suffered lifelong battles with gender dysphoria as a result of biological essentialism, transphobia as a result of his gender identity, discrimination and criminalization of his gender expression,[30] queerphobia as a result of his attraction to women in a body assigned female, sexism having been perceived as a cisgender woman, and racism having been a person of color in Jim Crow America.  These are not the experiences of a cisgender woman, nor a stealth transgender person who consistently performed their gender as the opposite sex. These are the experiences of a man of color who publicly identified as a woman, privately identified with masculinity, whose body made them queer.

Naomi Simmons-Thorne (She/Her/Hers) is a philosopher and graduate student at the University of South Carolina working on a Master’s Degree in educational foundation with a focus on literature, literacy, and composition. Her studies focus on the politics of U.S. schooling and structural inequalities in education. In her work, she draws on critical social theory, radical pedagogy, and qualitative methods. Naomi is an advocate for movements that advance social justice in education and center Critical Consciousness, Anti-Bias Education and Prejudice Reduction Pedagogies. In addition to her published work, she is known as a scholar-activist on issues concerning gender, sexuality, and race. Naomi is Brooklyn-born of Trinidadian descent and identifies as a transgender woman.

Further Reading

[1] Rosalind Rosenberg, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 58.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Rahel Gebreyes, “How ‘Respectablity Politics’ Muted The Legacy Of Black LGBT Activist Pauli Murray” HuffPost, February 10, 2015.

[4] Rosenberg, Jane Crow, 2.

[5] See the treatment of Murray’s gender dysphoria in: Kenneth Mack, Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 208-217.

[6] See: Doreen M. Drury, “Boy-girl, Imp, Priest: Pauli Murray and the Limits of Identity,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 29, no. 1 (2013): 142-147.

[7] See: Patricia Bell-Scott, The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017). Terms like ‘dysphoria,’ ‘trans/gender/sexual,’ and ‘gender identity/expression’ do not find themselves in the text. Bell-Scott conceives of Murray seemingly as a cisgender lesbian.

[8] See: Mack, Representing the Race.

[9] Rosenberg, Jane Crow, 2. Murray would also describe himself as a “minority in a minority” having felt “queer,” and “in between.” Murray claimed to prefer “experimentation on the male side” all of which he characterized as his “inverted sex instinct.” These are embryonic articulations of an incipient trans masculinity.

[10] See: Rosenberg, Jane Crow.

[11] Ibid., xvii.

[12] Ibid., 119.

[13] Drury, “Pauli Murray and the Limits of Identity,” 142.

[14] Cathy J. Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?,” in Black Queer Studies, eds. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 23.

[15] Kathryn Schulz, “The Many Lives of Pauli Murray” The New Yorker, April 10, 2017.

[16] Doreen M. Drury, ” Love, Ambition, and “Invisible Footnotes” in the Life and Writing of Pauli Murray,” in Black Genders and Sexualities, eds. Shaka McGlotten and Dána-Ain Davis (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 70.

[17] Drury, “Pauli Murray and the Limits of Identity,” 142.

[18] Ibid., 142.

[19] Murray experimented with various masculine aliases including Paul, Pete, and Oliver. He eventually settled with the name for which he is commonly known, Pauli. See: Rosenberg, Jane Cow, 39 and Gebreyes, “Black LGBT Activist Pauli Murray.”

[20] Murray’s preference for “experimentation on the male side” included a preference for male attire. See: Rosenberg, Jane Crow, 2.

[21] Murray wrote that his dysphoria made life “unbearable,” that it “continually [blocked] my efforts to the things of which I am capable.” See: Rosenberg, Jane Crow, 119-121.

[22] Murray believed for a time he might have been ‘invertedly sexed.’ See: Rosenberg, Jane Crow, 57-60 and 121.

[23] See: Rosenberg, Jane Crow, 57-60, 121, and 144-145.

[24] Ibid., 29.

[25] Pauli Murray Project, “Identities: between Male & female,” Accessed May 05, 2019.

[26] I define gender essentialist feminisms as feminist/feminisms that take assigned sex as a gender determinant.

[27] See: Simon D. Elin Fisher, “Pauli Murray’s Peter Panic: Perspectives from the Margins of Gender and Race in Jim Crow America” Transgender Studies Quarterly 3, no. 1 (2016): 95-103.

[28] See: C. Riley Snorton, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

[29] Fisher, “Pauli Murray’s Peter Panic,” 95-103.

[30] See: Rosenberg, Jane Crow, 39 and 80-81 and Mack, Representing the Race, 216-217.

4 comments on “Pauli Murray and the Pronominal Problem: a De-essentialist Trans Historiography

  1. Pingback: Donate – The Activist History Review

  2. Pingback: Pride| Secret Trans History – THE DEEP DARK TRUTH PODCAST

  3. Thank you for this. I just finished watching the documentary on Pauli, and I was immensely bothered by the way that they gendered him, even after acknowledging his extensively documented gender dysphoria.


  4. Pingback: Celebrating Black History Month: Black Feminists – Astro Lola

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