Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tani on ASLH panel on Pauli Murray's Human Rights Revolution

Guest Post by Karen Tani

A highlight of the recent conference of the American Society for Legal History was the panel on “Pauli Murray’s Human Rights Revolution,” which paired papers on the underappreciated activist and scholar, Pauli Murray.

Davison Douglas, College of William & Mary, is working on a full biography of Murray. He presented a paper about Murray’s eighteen months in Ghana in 1960 and 1961, titled “Pauli Murray’s Conception of Human Rights.” According to Douglas, Murray went to Ghana for a variety of reasons, including to get away from the discouragements of the U.S. freedom struggle, to explore her African roots, and to be a part of African independence movements. She also went, however, as a “cold warrior”: in her role as a professor of constitutional law she was an ambassador for American constitutional ideals. Douglas thus agreed with Kevin Gaines that Murray was an American apologist. But Douglas disagreed with Gaines on the significance of Murray’s time in Ghana. In Douglas’s view, Murray’s experiences there did not lead her to reject pan-Africanism and embrace American ideals; Murray never identified strongly with African culture (although she did identify with Africans’ experience of oppression) and had, since a devastating brush with “McCarthyism” in the early 1950s, emphasized her own “Americanness.” She had also long championed American values, such as freedom of speech and due process. In sum, Douglas argued, Murray’s time in Ghana was a continuation of her political trajectory and one more example of her “nationless, raceless, and sexless” human rights vision.

Serena Mayeri, University of Pennsylvania Law School, was unexpectedly “fogged in” in Philadelphia, but the paper she submitted emphasized another manifestation of that vision. In “Pauli Murray and the Reinvention of American Legal Feminism,” Mayeri described the way Murray revitalized the “dormant” analogy between sex and race, pioneered a “pragmatic” brand of legal feminism, theorized the concept of “intersectionality” (as it would later be called), and laid the groundwork for cooperation between divided groups of reformers. The paper focused most on Murray’s efforts to get the women’s movement and the civil rights movement to coalesce around the same constitutional litigation strategy (one focused on the Fourteenth Amendment) and to analogize sex discrimination to racial discrimination. This strategy, Murray believed, could unite the protectionist and equalitarian factions within the women’s movement, encourage women’s inclusion in the “masculinist” civil rights movement, and channel energies toward a branch of government that seemed receptive. For similar reasons, Murray promoted enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and urged the passage of a human rights amendment. In the Court, at least, Murray’s agenda was successful. But by the mid-1970s it was clear that the race/sex analogy was proving less and less useful, both as a coalition-building tool and a jurisprudential device. Mayeri closed the paper with the image of Murray at age sixty-three: in keeping with her complex identity and diverse interests, she had become an Episcopal priest, but she continued to advocate interracial feminist alliances and to draw connections between seemingly disparate struggles for justice.

Cynthia Grant Bowman, Cornell University, and Rosalind Rosenberg, Barnard College, offered insightful comments on both papers. Bowman suggested that Murray miscalculated: instead of creating better laws, her strategy established “confusing and inconsistent precedents” that were not always favorable to women’s welfare and didn’t “work” in cases of less overt discrimination. Bowman urged Mayeri to explore the implications of Murray’s self-described “functional” approach to equal protection litigation. Rosenberg also discussed the unfortunate consequences of Murray’s strategy, but suggested that perhaps Murray never intended to leave reform entirely up to the courts; perhaps she was “buying time” for more progressive legislation and simply failed to anticipate Congress’ conservative turn in 1966. Rosalind also asked Mayeri for more information on Murray’s changing stance toward the ERA and on Murray’s commitment to economic rights. Regarding Douglas’s paper, Bowman wondered why Murray’s time in Ghana was not radicalizing, as it was for many other expatriates, and urged more attention to what Murray’s life was like there. Rosenberg concurred and added that she wondered how gender played a role in Murray’s experience.

Jed Shugerman, Harvard Law School, generously chaired the panel in place of Tomiko Brown-Nagin, who was unable to attend. He also read Mayeri’s paper and initiated an interesting discussion of the import of class and sexual orientation to the panelists’ stories.
Another superb ASLH panel post from Karen Tani is here.

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