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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Pauli Murray, February 13, 1976. Interview G-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Development of "conscious feminism"

Murray argues that she first became aware of sex discrimination as a law student at Howard University during the early 1940s. Up until that point, Murray had focused almost exclusively on race-based discrimination; however, as one of only two women students in the law school, she became the subject of blatant gender discrimination. According to Murray, it was her experiences at Howard that awakened her "conscious feminism."

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Pauli Murray, February 13, 1976. Interview G-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

O.K., so at the law school, two things happened immediately. I became aware of sex prejudice.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
That was something that I was going to ask you about.
PAULI MURRAY:
I became aware of it in my freshman year at law school. It came upon me as a terrible shock. I had not grown up in a family where limitations were placed upon women. My whole family tradition had been self-sufficient women. My grandfather, patriarch though he was, believed in his daughters being self-sufficient and independent and so it just simply was not a part of my family tradition to expect any limitations upon what a woman could and could not do. I had never thought of myself in terms of a woman. I had thought of myself in preparing to be a civil rights lawyer for this cause. I had not been in school, I guess for two or three days, and Professor Robert Ming, said …I can't tell whether he was kidding or being sarcastic or what, but he said, "We don't know why women come to law school anyway, but since you're here …" However you take it, one has to respond, you can't just say that this is really kidding. Then the second thing, was that there was a notice on the bulletin board very shortly, maybe two or three weeks after school began which said, "All male members of the first year class are invited to Dean So-and-So's for a smoker." There were only two females in the entire school, one of which was myself. I am so stunned. I couldn't imagine. "What is all this?" So, I raised the question. I was told that they wanted to look over the members of the first year class for the legal fraternity. "Well, if it is a legal fraternity, why am I not eligible?" "Oh, well, why don't you women go and form a legal sorority." So, what I'm really saying is that removing the racial factor, Howard University being a school where the racial factor was not the problem, immediately the sex factor was isolated and stood there in all of its …
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
And the professor who was involved in making a suggestion of a female legal society was not one of the white professors at the law school?
PAULI MURRAY:
There were no white professors.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
At that point, there were no white professors, in the twenties and thirties?
PAULI MURRAY:
No, there were none at that point. (in the 1940's) So, my whole experience at law school was an experience of learning really for the first time what, in a way, a crude kind of sexism can be, an unvarnished one. It is not the …the sexism in a minority group, and I would think that this is true in machismo, the hispanic tradition, it is not a smooth kind thing, it isn't so disguised. It is a kind of straight out machismo.
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
In fact, so much a part of custom that one is not supposed to question it, which is why it can be crude.
PAULI MURRAY:
Yes. And so, this is the beginning of my conscious feminism, which began at Howard University back in the 1940s.