Tuesday, July 19, 2016

"Not Part of Anyone's Power Structure"

I just finished reading The Firebrand and the First Lady, Patricia Bell-Scott's dual biography of Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt, and am even more impressed by Murray than I was yesterday.  In addition to all her achievements, I learned in the second half of the book that Murray found a partner in her later years, Irene ("Renee") Barlow.  Barlow was the office manager at Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton and Garrison, the law firm where Murray worked for a few years in the late 1950s.
The relationship proved the most satisfying of Murray's adult life, as it gave her acceptance and the embrace of family again.  Barlow's mother, Mary Jane, who took to mending Murray's "neglected clothing," relieved the void left by the loss of Aunts Pauline and Sallie.  Though Murray and Barlow never lived in the same apartment, together they opened a bank account, owned a car, vacationed, lunched with ER, and would eventually share the same burial plot [265].
They were together for seventeen years, until Barlow's death from complications of a brain tumor in 1973.  She shared Murray's family plot not just with Murray (who outlived her by more than a decade), but with her mother and Murray's Aunts Pauline and Sallie.

I don't know if Murray thought of herself as a lesbian; I don't think Bell-Scott ever says.  I suppose it's most likely she used "homosexual," which was the most neutral term available to her generation, especially for public discussion.  It's the word Bell-Scott uses throughout the book, though it feels a lot less neutral nowadays than it did fifty years ago.  (She does use "lesbian" for Roosevelt's friend Lorena Hickok, however; page 284; which makes it odder, to my mind, that she never applies it to Murray.

Murray still apparently viewed homosexuality as a medical condition in her later years, though she also "increasingly mentioned homosexual rights in her sermons, speeches, and other writings" (346).  I very much liked her retort to a male classmate at the General Theological Seminary in the early 1970s, who
complained that all the talk about discrimination dominated too much class time, ... "If you have to live with anger, I have to live with pain.  I'll trade you both my pain, my sex, my race and my age -- and see how you deport yourself i such circumstances.  Barring that, try to imagine for 24 hours what it must be like to be a Negro in a predominantly white seminary, a woman in an institution dominated by men and for the convenience of men, some of whom radiate hostility even though they do not say a word, who are patronizing and kindly as long as I do not get out of my place, but who feel threatened by my intellect, my achievements, and my refusal to be suppressed. ... If I can't take your judgmental statements and your anger, I am in the wrong place.  If you cannot take my methods of fighting for survival, then you have chosen the wrong vocation" [344].
It might be easy to see Murray's outspokenness as her due, given her age, her achievements, and her intellect; but as you'll see if you read her earlier writings, such as her letters to the Roosevelts criticizing their foot-dragging on racial discrimination and violence, you'll see she was always this bold.  Getting to see that is a large part of what makes The Firebrand and the First Lady such a pleasure to read. 

One of Bell-Scott's historical generalizations struck me as notably off the mark, though:
Adding to [Murray's] worries about racial violence was the escalating hostility toward homosexuals that would lead to police confrontations, such as the 1969 Stonewall riots [336].
This turns the actual situation on its head.  "Hostility toward homosexuals" had been an enduring feature of the American scene all through the twentieth century, and the police had raided "homosexual" events and establishments freely throughout that period.  What had escalated after World War II, and especially in the 1960s, was gay people's unwillingness to accept that we had to accept such mistreatment, culminating in the Stonewall riots, when patrons of a raided Greenwich Village bar turned around and fought back.  Substitute "African Americans" for "homosexuals" in Bell-Scott's sentence and see how it sounds; it's a simplistic and wrong-headed summation of a complex development.

For that matter, Murray's relative openness about her lesbianism made problems for her throughout her career.  In 1966, for example, she was considered to fill a vacancy on the newly-established Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but the Johnson administration "backed away" (333) because her FBI file documented her left-wing past and her declaration to hospital staff that "she was a homosexual" when she was admitted after her breakdown in the 1930s.  When she was ordained by the Episcopal Church in 1977, she "learned that John Thomas Walker, designated ... as the first African American bishop of the Diocese of Washington, was making insidious remarks about her sexuality behind her back" (346).  But she was ordained, and since she was one of the first women to become an Episcopal priest, she must have been the first lesbian Episcopal priest as well.

I love her, not least because she confounded the cliche that people become more conservative with age by becoming more radical she got older.  Murray deserves to be better known, and I hope this book will bring her more attention.