Goodwin Insights April 29, 2021

Ahead of Her Time and Behind the Scenes: Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, Pioneer in Intersectionality

As the culmination of our Women’s History Month celebration, Women@Goodwin, CRED@Goodwin, and Pride@Goodwin joined forces to sponsor a captivating discussion of the life and work of lawyer, activist, author, Episcopal priest and saint,  Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray. Goodwin’s Debasha Cox was joined by Betsy West, co-director of the new film My Name is Pauli Murray, Cinque Northern, My Name is Pauli Murray’s co-writer and editor, Lisa Crooms-Robinson, professor of law at Howard University School of Law, and Tony Alexis, Murray’s great nephew and a partner in Goodwin’s Complex Business Litigation & Dispute Resolution and Financial Industry Litigation practices.

After a brief note about Murray’s pronouns, the program opened with Tony Alexis reflecting on the person he knew as his grandmother’s sister — the frequent visitor who “was always in a white t-shirt typing away in my grandma’s guest room.” “One of the things I learned later as a lawyer as I looked back on some of the things that Pauli and I had in terms of conversations,” he recalls, “I realized all of the conversations with Pauli were basically cross-examination sessions.”

The discussion shifted to the background of Betsy West’s documentary, and how the framework of the narrative was built around the many ways that Murray was ahead of her time, such as refusing to sit on a broken seat at the back of a bus 15 years before Rosa Parks. “I aimed to give a full picture of all the ground-breaking things that Pauli Murray did” said West. “And to tell the story as much as possible in Pauli’s voice.”

Lisa Crooms-Robinson posited that Murray’s gender identity — or “inbetweeness” — and her overarching life experiences as a Black woman in the South, cultivated a unique perspective on justice and compassion that in turn had a profound effect on both legal theory — her scholarship formed the basis of the winning argument in Brown v. Board of Education, White v. Crook and Reed v. Reed — and later, on theological thought. As Murray herself confided, “In some ways I might have been disadvantaged to have been born a negro in white America, a woman in a man’s profession, left handed in a right handed world … but there are certain advantages in this status … ” Cinque Northern theorized that Murray’s intersectionality inspired in her a “low tolerance for arbitrary boundaries” that drove Murray to push boundaries in her work. Debasha Cox observed Murray’s accomplishment from the perspective of a young lawyer:

“It’s so easy to rely on precedent — we rely on precedent, we’re attorneys — and she says no, the precedent is wrong. This is incorrect and let me tell you why. I found that to be just so encouraging.”

The discussion, which began with an introduction that included a clip from West’s documentary, was followed by a lively Q&A session ranging from how we can apply what we learn from Pauli today, to the question underlying West’s film itself, “Why don’t we know more about Pauli Murray? Given her impact, why isn’t Pauli a household name?” Betsy West’s reasoning encapsulated the obvious reasons, but also considered the quicksilver quality of Murray’s character:

“Sexism and racism yes, those are two reasons why Pauli’s contributions were marginalized or ignored. I think also because of, as I indicated before, Pauli was so ahead of the times that she had moved onto the next thing by the time everybody else was kind of catching up to Pauli, and I think that’s another reason why people didn’t recognize what Pauli had done.”

If you’d like to catch up on the remarkable life of Pauli Murray, the webinar is available in full here. Click here to learn more about the soon-to-be-released documentary My Name is Pauli Murray.

Goodwin extends its appreciation to host Debasha Cox, and guests Betsy West, Cinque Northern, Lisa Crooms-Robinson and Anthony Alexis for a thought-provoking afternoon.