Monday, July 18, 2016

"It Is Curious How Thoughtlessly We Use Words"

While I was in Boston recently, someone recommended Patricia Bell-Scott's book The Firebrand and the First Lady,* about the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray (1910-1985).  Roosevelt, I hope, needs no introduction; Murray was an important activist and writer about African-American civil rights -- and, my informant added, a lesbian.  I'd never heard of her, but my interest was piqued.  The ebook was too expensive for me, but the physical book was on the shelves at the public library when I got back to Bloomington, so I checked it out immediately and am now about 180 pages (out of 360) into it.

It has turned out to be a fascinating read.  I'm surprised that I hadn't heard of Murray before.  Her achievements are too numerous to go into here, and her struggle against poverty and ill health (leaving aside racism and sexism) makes them all the more remarkable.  But here's a taste:
In the fall of 1945, Pauli Murray finished requirements for the master of laws and passed the California bar exam.  The publication of her thesis, "The Right to Equal Opportunity in Employment," in the California Law Review marked several milestones.  It was her first publication in a law review journal; it was the first essays ever published in a law review by an African American woman; and it was the first law review essay on the subject of sex discrimination and employment [177].
Unable to enroll at Harvard (her first choice) to get a doctorate in law, because the Law School refused to accept women of any color, or to find suitable employment despite her many connections, Murray felt obliged to move back east to care for her elderly aunt.
Her belongings were packed and her train ticket booked when she met Robert W. Kenny at her swearing-in ceremony to the California bar, on December 8, 1945.  Kenny was a liberal Democrat, an advocate for fair employment legislation, and California state attorney general.  Having just read Murray's groundbreaking law review article, he offered her a temporary post as deputy attorney general on the spot.  Until she passed the civil service examination, her appointment would be subject to the return of employees on military service leave.  Murray accepted Kenny's offer in spite of the shaky terms.  In doing so, she became the first black deputy attorney general for the state of California [178].
There were many such firsts in Murray's life; eventually, for another example, in 1977 she became the first African American woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest.  She seems to have lived more in one lifetime than most people could live in several.  I look forward to reading the rest of her story.

Right now, though, I'm chafing a bit at the book's scanting of Murray's lesbianism.  I don't assume that this is necessarily due to authorial homophobia; Bell-Scott is more concerned with Murray's public career, which was eventful enough. (Also with Roosevelt's: The Firebrand the First Lady is really a dual biography, following both women's lives even when they weren't interacting with each other.  And Bell-Scott buries Roosevelt's lesbian connections: ER's beloved friend, the journalist Lorena Hickok, has been mentioned in passing but her lesbianism has not, nor her relationship with Roosevelt.  A look at the index shows that Hickok's "intimate friendship" with ER is referred to briefly once, and her lesbianism acknowledged, once, a hundred pages later.

In Murray's case, she evidently grappled with her love of women from her teen years onward, and it's not always clear which of her women friends were actually girlfriends.  That may be because Bell-Scott doesn't know, but Murray was a compulsive writer and documented her anxieties and conflicts pretty fully.  Maybe more information has been published elsewhere, and more may come later in this book.  But I found this passage, about her state of mind in her late twenties, very interesting.
Since Murray's hospitalization [for an apparent mental breakdown] at the Long Island Home three years earlier, she had been consulting with doctors and scouring the scientific literature in search of an "answer to true homosexuality."  That Murray asked one psychiatrist if she had "a mother fixation" demonstrated her familiarity with psychoanalysis.  Having rebuffed psychiatric treatment and the theory that her attraction to women was a manifestation of homosexuality, Murray constructed an alternative explanation.  She convinced herself that she was a pseudohermpaphrodite with secreted testes (and she would hold this belief until X-rays of her uterus, fallopian tubes, and the surrounding area proved her wrong).  Such a condition pointed to biology -- specifically, the presence of male gonads and hormones -- rather than mental illness as the source of her attraction to women, her tomboyishness and her lack of interest in feminine pursuits, such as housekeeping [57].
I'm fascinated by this glimpse into conceptions of sex, gender, and sexual orientation in the 1930s.  How odd that, though she rejected a medical diagnosis of "homosexuality," Murray invented and embraced a no less medicalized theory of herself as a "pseudohermaphrodite."  And, of course, "biology" and "mental illness" have always been intertwined, whether for sex or for other conditions.  Professionals never quite made up their minds, in this period or later, whether homosexuality was purely mental or the expression of a physical abnormality.  ("Homosexuality" was originally conceived of as a social and quasi-legal concept when Karl-Maria Kertbeny invented it in 1868; it was only appropriated by the medical profession later on.)

The reference to Murray's "tomboyishness" understates the case too.  "Just a few years earlier, Murray had proudly asked Nancy Cunard to publish a photograph of Pete, her 'boy-self.'"  I wonder if Murray ever read Radclyffe Hall?  Murray also liked to wear "men's" clothing, and it wouldn't be off the mark to think of her as a "passing woman."  Bell-Scott also recounts a trip to North Carolina that Murray made in 1940 with her friend (nudge, nudge?) and roommate (wink, wink?) Adelene McBean (aka "Mac").  They were arrested in Virginia for refusing to stay in the back of the bus they were riding.  Only a couple of pages into the story, with the two women in custody, does Bell-Scott mention that Murray "was apparently dressed in male clothing and had told officers, according to one passenger, that her name was Oliver Fleming" (63).  Murray "gave her name and clarified her sex status as they were booked" (64).  There's no indication that Murray's cross-dressing or her adoption of a male persona added to their legal problems, though I'd have expected it to.  As I read all this, I began wondering just what Murray's "boy-self" meant to her.  Bell-Scott doesn't say, but it appears that Murray's life is very well-documented, as indicated by the detailed witness accounts of her and Mac's arrest and her custom of thinking through personal issues at the typewriter.

I'm not interested in deciding what Pauli Murray "really was."  Invert, homosexual, Urning, gay, lesbian, transman, bulldagger -- such terms, as I've written before, are "the fossils of ideologies of what men and women and sex are."  Many people nowadays would jump to identify her as transgender, for example, but I don't think our categories today are any more correct than those of a century agoI just want to know more about how Murray saw herself, especially since she clearly thought and wrote about these questions, and left a large archive behind her.  Since she lived into the 80s, she must have come into contact with later constructions of sex and gender, and thought about them.  Well, maybe another book by someone else will address these questions.  Right now, at this stage in Bell-Scott's book, I am dazzled by Murray's gutsiness, energy, doggedness, and intelligence -- brilliance, really.

* Patricia Bell-Scott, The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship -- Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice (Knopf, 2016).