Season 1

Feminist Files: Episode 7 – The Ordeal of 1973
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Pauli Murray, a co-founder of NOW, leaves the movement as well as a tenure track position at Brandeis. It’s a stunning move for someone who’s fought their entire lives to reach the pinnacle of their profession. Why? In the Schlesinger Collection, Leigh discovers a torn journal and pieces together a narrative that takes us on an emotional roller coaster, following Pauli through a series of losses and struggles, as Pauli packs up the belongings of a life and the dog Roy, and makes a huge life change at age 63.

THE ORDEAL OF 1973 – TRANSCRIPT

[STANDBY RECAP MUSIC BEGINS.]

Leigh: So the tenacious Mrs. Green along with Patsy Mink and their ally in the Senate, Birch Bayh, slipped Title IX, a mere 37 words, into the larger omnibus education appropriations bill that probably not very many people even read. As Bunny recounts in the oral history transcript:

Jodie: She said, this bill is going to pass. And if you start lobbying, more people are going to ask questions about it. She says, you know, trust me. It’s going to pass. Edith Green was right. No one was really watching. No one was watching!

Leigh: We could say that they pulled a fast one on the education system, on the NCAA, but even these women didn’t know how far Title IX was going to go.

Jodie: When Title IX was introduced, a lot of people talked about their particular field or their particular school, but there’s not a single mention of athletics. So when Title IX passes in ’72, I know. And about 10 other people know it’s going to cover athletics. But no one had done a study of how bad athletic discrimination was. So we did not know how far this was going to go.

Leigh: So for the next three years Bunny Sandler, Patsy Mink, and a handful of others worked on the regulations with the Department of Education, consulting and advising on the creation of the regulatory guidelines that would govern Title IX. 

Jodie: Now what happened was the women coalesced, and we were working with the Department of Education.

Leigh: It’s clear from Bunny’s oral history that during that time Bunny was working to make sure that the women’s groups had a voice at the table.

Jodie: We met with them countless times. There were all kinds of things that had to be considered.

Leigh: But I became curious as to what was going on in Pauli’s life. During these years after the legislative victories in 1972, what happened to Pauli?

As a dramatist, you’re always on the hunt for the tension. And sometimes the tension is in what is not being said. The tension lives in what is absent from the narrative. There are a lot of things that Pauli never told Bunny, and a lot of things that Pauli never told anyone.

I’m on the hunt for clues. I’m on the hunt for evidence. And I returned to the collections at the Schlesinger Library to find out.

[STANDBY RECAP MUSIC ENDS, AND OPENING MUSIC PLAYS.]

Leigh: From Frequency Machine and Leigh Fondakowski comes the story of the 1972 landmark legislation for women’s equality in education: 37 words that would change the world.

[SONG AND AUDIO CLIPS PLAY.]

Leigh: Join me and an ensemble of actors as we discovered the stealth politics of Title IX. This is Feminist Files episode 7, “The Ordeal of 1973.”

Back in the Schlesinger Library Reading Room on February 26th, 2020. It’s cold outside, and the parking in Cambridge is a bear. But I’ve come to look forward to these weekly visits to the library. Diving into the collection, I’m finding threads and making connections. Around this time I begin to get a sense of the magnitude of the history here—the impossibility of accounting for all the consequential feminists and thousands and thousands of boxes of material here. It’s a combination of naivete and wonder that propels us to the next chapter. I hear the refrain in my head from one of Bunny’s letters to Pauli.

Jodie: One of the nicest things that has happened is the truly wonderful and remarkable people I am meeting now, women like yourself. I find myself wondering where all these good people were before and why I never met them.

Leigh: I find myself asking the same question sitting in the corner table at the Schlesinger Library. Hey, consequential feminists, where have you been all my life?

In Bunny and Pauli Murray, you have two nerdy revolutionaries working to advance the cause by quieter legislative means, as the louder, more radical voices ascend, demanding liberation. Women’s lib, Black liberation. Pauli Murray is feeling increasingly out of sync with the Black students at Brandeis, who are becoming more militant and radical and who want professors who feel the same. For someone like Pauli, who had been an activist at the very forefront of the civil rights movement from the 1930s on, the divergence here of the ends and means must have cut very deeply.

Back in the archive is the letter collection written between Bunny and Pauli Murray from 1970 to 1976. When I was studying the letters exchanged between Bunny and Pauli Murray, I noticed that there was a big gap in their correspondence. They wrote back and forth to each other pretty steadily until the early fall of 1971. Then their correspondence drops off until 1976. I’m trying to figure out and understand what happened to Pauli’s career at Brandeis. What happened to Pauli’s place in the women’s movement?

It’s the absence of letters that made me curious. I decided to take a look at the Pauli Murray papers at the Schlesinger Library. What other clues did they leave for us to find? Teddy was working that day. I just wanted to take a quick look.

Jules: Okay. Okay.

Leigh: Okay. There’s no such thing as a quick look, and Teddy knows it. But without too much fanfare, Teddy says:

Jules: Okay.

Leigh: And in no time at all, Teddy emerges from the vault door of the Reading Room, wheeling a book truck heading in my direction. Pauli Murray’s feminist files MC 412-30.

In box 1, a heading on a folder leaps out at me: diary, loose pages and hardbound, 1967 to 1973. These are roughly the years I’ve been studying the origin story of Title IX. I opened the folder flat on the table and began to take a look. There’s a small stack of yellow loose-leaf pages, legal size pages, the kind a lawyer might use. The writing is in blue ink—a fine point magic marker—the kind my dad used to use when I was a kid. At the top of the first page a day, a date, and a time. I have found Pauli Murray’s journal from 1973. This is what Pauli Murray wrote in the journal that day.

Samira: Friday, August 10th, 1973, noon. I could hardly have conceived of a more inauspicious, complicated beginning of my new life: a violent thunderstorm as I left Massachusetts, utter chaos on this end, the apartment unpainted and inaccessible, a switch in apartments and buildings, everything unloaded and stacked in the middle of the floor, a filthy cellar, slum conditions in the surrounding neighborhood, a dog, and a car on my hands to cope with. City noises, truck routes on the side streets, no air conditioning, no place to eat. Roy, the dog, to break into city life on a leash and no place to run or bushes to aid in performing his natural function. For all of this, I truly need support.

Leigh: It’s Roy. Remember Roy, the most famous bark in history. I’ve accidentally stumbled upon the start of something. It sounds like the start of something big.

Samira: Any major changes are accompanied by turmoil and a certain amount of chaos, but this one has an extra portion.

Leigh: The first page of the stack of yellow loose-leaf pages, so much drama and a cry for help.

Samira: Thousands of small details, and always the dog to think about and plan for and worry about, let alone the car.

Leigh: Has Pauli left Boston? Why would Pauli leave Brandeis after fighting so hard to get tenure?

Samira: I dread the tasks ahead of bringing order out of chaos, of stuffing my belongings into four tiny rooms. Yet, I know that in time it will all come out right.

Leigh: I felt as if I had just opened a novel and dropped into a world. I keep reading.

Samira: Having made the most important commitment of my life to date, I must live with the difficulties of my choice, learn greater humility. I am truly on my own, but in each major turn of my life, God has raised up new friends.

Leigh: It’s the summer of 1973. Pauli Murray seems to have left Boston to fulfill a new commitment, the most important commitment of Pauli’s life to date, which is saying a lot after the life Pauli Murray has lived and the activist work Pauli Murray has accomplished. Pauli is 63 years old in 1973. It’s a page turner.

Samira: I was able to find a space for the car until Monday, at least. And I was able to begin the breaking in process for Roy. At least he has learned that clumps of grass around the few available trees in the area can be used for his purposes. All in all, considering the chaos I found upon arriving, I managed to muddle through without coming apart at the seams.

Leigh: Eight hours later, Pauli’s back writing, bookending these August days and nights with pen on paper. August 10th at 8:30 PM.

Samira: I almost hit a crisis today. The heat, the confusion, hunger, recoiling from the dirt and drabness of the city, the loneliness. Things seemed to get better when I located my book of prayers. Meditation, a shower, and solving the dinner problem by getting a quart of milk and some Fig Newton, 73 cents. Perhaps all of this is testing my depth of faith.

Leigh: And then Pauli writes.

Samira: The neighborhood is depressing, but this is New York City.

Leigh: Of course, this is New York City. Of course, she’s worrying about the car. Alternate side parking, it’s a New York thing. I knew it when she said Monday spot, the parking and Roy. Roy!

Samira: And I knew I would be coming back to squalor, danger, and a different city in many ways from the one I left five years ago. It is a city without R.’s presence and can never be the same again.

Leigh: The single initial R. It leaps off the page.

Samira: without R.’s presence

Leigh: Who is R.? Why only the single initial?

Samira: And I really must live only one day at a time and find meaning in the tiny advances.

Leigh: The next morning at 11:00 AM, Pauli picks up the thread with the smallest of victories.

Samira: I made coffee under the most primitive conditions in the apartment this morning and drank it out of a measuring cup. But this was progress. Perhaps I can go to church tomorrow.

Leigh: What I would come to recognize as classic Pauli Murray looking for God. And because this is New York City, also looking for parking.

Samira: My first day here caught in the parking squeeze was so traumatic I have not dared lose parking since then. Roy seems to be adjusting fairly well. He ate all of his food this morning and went three times in his two trips. I cannot expect easy solutions to the day-to-day problems, but must give my attention to the long term objectives. This year is to be one of study and reflection, of preparing myself for greater services in the spiritual realm.

Leigh: What is Pauli up to here? Writing another book?

Samira: By throwing myself completely into God’s plan and trying to submit my will to God’s will as an instrument, perhaps I may make a contribution somewhere somehow. Here the rent is so low I can at least feel that I’m not being exploited. Sufficient unto the day.

Leigh: I turned the page. The next day, Sunday, August 12th, 1973. The hot sticky August heat of 1973 in New York City. 1973 is a year of scandals. There’s the ongoing Watergate investigation, and the Saturday Night Massacre. No, kids, that’s not a horror movie.

[A NEWS CLIP OF THE SATURDAY NIGHT MASSACRE PLAYS.]

Leigh: That was Nixon’s undoing. After nine years of declared war, a peace treaty is signed with North Vietnam, beginning the release of the first prisoners of war, including John McCain, who had been imprisoned and tortured for five and a half years. There is also an oil embargo leading to an oil crisis, and gas prices shoot up to 55 cents a gallon.

[A NEWS CLIP ABOUT THE OIL CRISIS PLAYS.]

Leigh: The term sexual harassment is first used in a report on gender issued at MIT. The Endangered Species Act is passed. And tennis champion Billie Jean King, an American tennis legend, wins the Battle of the Sexes, defeating Bobby Riggs, proving that women could not only compete with men, but beat them in straight sets. It’s the year Roe v. Wade is decided, making abortion legal.

[A NEWS CLIP ABOUT ROE V. WADE PLAYS.]

Samira: Sunday, August 12th, 1973, 6:20 PM. Fixed my coffee at the apartment. And while doing so, the two top floors of an old brownstone several doors down the street caught on fire. The street was full of fire engines when I brought Roy out. I went over to St. Peter’s. The hymn “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” brought back strong memories of R. which stayed with me much of the afternoon.

[AN AUDIO CLIP OF THE HYMN PLAYS.]

Leigh: This is Psalm 23 set to music. It’s also the second mention of R. I know enough about Pauli to suspect that the use of the single initial R is to keep the person anonymous, to keep the gender of the person anonymous.

Samira: My first Sunday in New York City, I have not made contact with any of my friends. Didn’t have the heart to do so, for I didn’t want to say how gloomy the situation looks at this moment. How utterly at loose ends I am, stuck in an empty room with the dog and no decent place to walk him. August is perhaps the worst month of the year in the city—the intolerable heat and everything drifting along.

Leigh: I want to turn the page to find out what happens next, but there are no more pages.

That’s the last page in the stack of yellow loose-leaf pages with the blue ink. The story falls off a cliff. What’s going to happen to Roy, to the apartment, to the car? And what about R.? What happened to Pauli? Sometimes when you’re in the archive, you head off in search of something, but the story finds you.

Hold that thought a moment while we take a brief intermission.

~

Leigh: I returned to the folder: diary, loose pages and hardbound, 1967 to 1973. In it, I find a dark green hardcover journal with light green binding along the edge. It’s taped along the sides with scotch tape to hold it together. When I lift the front cover, the journal opens up all by itself to a page about halfway through, where a chunk of pages has been torn out of the middle. So the binding is weak. This is what I found there.

Samira: Wednesday, June 20th, 1973. The inconceivable inevitable has happened, and one can only accept it and go on living. One might see the blessing in the way it happened. So far as we can tell, the serious symptoms were a matter of a few months. So in the long view of things, the time was mercifully short. And one must believe that in God’s divine plan, it was perhaps better that I should be left than the other way round. Suppose it had been the other way around, R. would have been bereft. God is a loving God and would not put upon us more than we could bear.

Leigh: Whoa. R. seems to have died. And by the weight of these entries, it’s clear to me that R. was more than a friend.

Samira: The swiftness of the closing chapter made me only dimly perceive what was happening. I do not know at exactly what time she was no longer aware of her surroundings. But thank God, as long as she was, I was there, and she knew I was there.

Leigh: That’s when I noticed that the loose pages were out of order. How did I not catch that? I’d been reading the story backwards. Pauli’s writing about R.’s death in June 1973. The move to New York City was in August. So before the saga with the dog and the car and the apartment and the chaos and the terror of strange surroundings, moving in a thunderstorm, Pauli lost R. Is this why Pauli’s life changed so dramatically? But who is R.?

Samira: Thursday, June 21st, 1973, 7:10 AM. Four months today. Bereavement has been acute for the past several days. I was raging in my agony, arguing with God, shaking my fist. I can never regain what I have lost in this finite life. That whatever possibility of her union lies in another world. I do not think this is morbid. It is an attempt to recognize the work God wishes me to do for the remainder of my life. 

Leigh: I count backwards from June 21st, four months. R. died on March, 21st, 1973.

Samira: Saturday, June 23rd, 1973, 10:40 AM. Day after day the struggle is for acceptance of what has happened—a squirm and inwardly squeal—but I cannot change it. And much of this I must bear inwardly, because it is too great a burden to impose upon anyone else and much too private a woe to share fully with others.

Leigh: Pauli is writing about that which cannot even safely be spoken about or even named.

Samira: Communication was the hallmark of the R.P. friendship, and the need was mutual. The recognition that another was part of oneself, your life and my future. I said, it is a once in a lifetime. And having known it, I must somehow be content. These depths of despair are the other side of the rejoicing.

Leigh: These are love words, and this is a lover’s grief. Poor Pauli.

Samira: I must not wallow in sorrow but recognize it for what it is worth: an affliction containing a lesson.

Leigh: I turn to the next page.

Samira: If she was conscious that last night, she knew I was there holding her hand in mine and saying right here, R., right here and reading her the 23rd Psalm. I must be secure in the faith that she is resting in God’s pocket, as she used to say.

Leigh: The page is written in black ink and seems to have a few stains where tears may have dropped. 1, 2, 3 drops, I make a note of it. One of the drops looks as if Pauli tried to wipe it away, leaving a smudge on the page.

Samira: R. once one said I found it hard to release people. Now I must release her to eternity.

Leigh: We don’t know if Pauli would have identified as gay or as transgender, but homosexuality wasn’t legal in every state until the Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas in 2003. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. So, kids, homosexuality was considered a mental illness. We don’t know if Pauli identified as gay, but is it a wonder that Pauli is using the single initial R. to talk about this most intimate relationship?

Samira: Friday, July 6th, 1973. At times I feel some slight tension in the head and wonder if it is R.’s spirit near me. It is like a faint awareness. Over and over, I remind myself that all is for the best and that God has plans for me that I could not foresee.  

Leigh: We’re back in Boston, and Pauli is preparing for the big move to New York.

Samira: What is ahead of me is to undergo the difficult days of weeding out, packing, and moving.

Leigh: Pauli and the black lab Roy will be moving from Boston to New York. There will be a thunderstorm, a change of apartments, a terrifying first night alone in New York City, and a big learning curve for Roy. There will be a battle between Pauli and the roaches, both staking a claim to the apartment.

Samira: Monday, July 9th, 1973, 6:45 AM. Little by little, I am cleaning out files and trying to get things into order. As always, the future is uncertain. I don’t know how I’m going to get it all done, but as R. would say, I’ll muddle through somehow.

Leigh: Pauli does get it all done. We have the proof in the yellow loose-leaf pages with the blue ink documenting Pauli’s arrival in New York City.

Samira: Friday, July 13th, 1973, 7:00 AM. Part of the difficulty is deciding what to save and what to discard or pass on to Schlesinger Library.

Leigh: Which is where I am right now, reading the very journal in which Pauli is writing these words. These are the moments in the archive when everything feels just right, when you feel I am in the right place at the right time. I am right where I am supposed to be.

I am on a mission now to share Pauli’s story, not just all of what Pauli accomplished, but who Pauli is: an artist, a teacher, a writer, an activist, a dog lover, and someone searching for God. Someone trying to be holy, even in the midst of personal pain and struggle. There is so much to learn from Pauli about how to be an activist. But there’s also a lot to learn from Pauli about how to be human, about how not to run away from grief—but to embrace it, to use it.

Samira: I have gotten rid of several boxes of books and several cartons of files to the women’s archives. The summer weekends slip away in aloneness. But I tried to comfort myself with the thought that R.’s spirit is not far away. And this activity is good therapy for me.

Leigh: There are pages and pages in the green hardcover journal in which Pauli is thinking out loud, processing, planning, and preparing to leave Boston for a new life.

Samira: Friday, July 27th, 1973, 10:00 PM. I’m making some progress with packing. It is five months today since R.’s memorial service. And in some respects, it has seemed an eternity. In others, it is only a very short time.

Leigh: I have accidentally discovered Pauli’s grief journal.

Samira: I try to believe that R. and I are not separated and that we are embraced in the all-inclusive spirit of God. And that if there is consciousness, she is happy and beyond pain.

Leigh: The last entry is on August 7th, the last morning in Boston.

Samira: August 7th, 1973. It is now 11:20, and the movers have not arrived. I am marooned until they come, and the delay throws my schedule off. I’ll just have to be patient and not fret.

Leigh: The last lines in the green hardcover journal: “just have to be patient and not fret.” I quickly look around to pick up the thread, nothing more in box 1 that looks like a journal. So I dive into the second box that Teddy has left on the book truck parked beside me.

There’s a folder marked: diary, 1970 to 1974. Not to be confused with diary, loose pages and hardbound, 1967 to 1973. Are you kidding? I was and still am to a certain extent totally confused. But in the space of a few hours, I’m also totally immersed and quite attached now to Roy, to the apartment, and of course, to the pursuit of R., figuring out who she was to Pauli and how she died. Where is this story going? How is this story going to end in box 2? I find another hardcover journal. And this next journal catches up with Pauli and Roy in New York City, settling in.

Samira: All in all, the apartment is beginning to take shape. It is still chaos, but much smaller chaos than last week. A week ago, I was terrified to stay here. The roaches defeated me, and boxes were piled up to the ceiling. Now the phone is in. I have notified Con Edison. I have started a checking account. And I have found a routine walk for Roy. R.’s picture is up, and I fancy a spirit of love is now dwelling over the household. I have so far to go, so much to overcome. Yet the other day, when I was very low and could simply endure from minute to minute, the radio WQXR played Transfigured Night, the record R. gave me. Instead it was like my spirit. I think I have handled my grief fairly well. It has not been quite six months yet, although it is almost eternity and only divine protection and support have kept me going.

Leigh: Roy seems to be doing okay, but Pauli is still trying to figure out what to do with the car.

Samira: The worry over the car has used all-together too much psychic energy. I want to reach the place where I feel normal and like my old self.

Leigh: And then I found this.

Samira: The Dean of Faculty of Brandeis wrote me that they will have to get a replacement and so accept my resignation. So that is that.

Leigh: So Pauli has resigned from Brandeis, but why? Is it the militancy in the civil rights and women’s movements that drive Pauli out of Brandeis?

Samira: Now I can plan the future without looking back. No matter where I am, I will have a sense of aloneness for quite a while, until I am able to pull together my life again and heal from the ordeal of 1973.

Leigh: Here Pauli names it: “the ordeal of 1973.”

Samira: Dear R. She would be so happy to know that she has made this possible. And that one who was close to her was provided for through the insurance proceeds.

Leigh: And then this Saturday, August 25th.

Samira: 8 o’clock PM. It struck me today that the surgery gave us five years that we would not have had. The radical nature of the surgery in 1967 was plain warning. And in a sense, we shared borrowed time from then on.

Leigh: I have not wrung my hands and remained inconsolable but try each day to accept the reality of R.’s going. In some way, much of the years past are like a dream.

Leigh: Pauli visits the gravesite with Roy.

Samira: Sunday, September 2nd, 1973, 4:05 PM. Another problem faced today, went out to the cemetery to see what needed to be done. I had dreaded the trip but took it in stride. What lives on is in the spirit, not the soil. Did have a chance to let Roy run a bit in the park part, and on my way back, stopped by and had breakfast with Mona. I plan to take the car to the parking lot, and that will be one further thing accomplished for the present.

Leigh: And then it’s Labor Day, September 3rd, the official end of summer.

Samira: How far I have come since August 9th, when I arrived here. At times I thought I would hardly make it, and I am almost ready to begin school. One tries to see a pattern of all things working together for good. A beautiful life, it’s work completed and moving on to a higher level, leaving behind an example and a legacy. 

Leigh: And then I stumble upon this.

Samira: I will never understand the mystery of feeling an electrical current as I knelt and touched R.’s coffin on the morning of the funeral, when I said my last goodbye, as if we were not separated in death. And that the mandate was for me to follow the cross as she had done. This led me to the decision to enter the ministry.

Leigh: An electrical current that passed between them. Pauli had some kind of white light experience that led to this decision. This is why Pauli uprooted their life and moved to New York City. Pauli is going to seminary. 

I am deep in the feminist files of Pauli Murray when Teddy calls time.

Jules: The reading room will close in 15 minutes.

Leigh: It’s 4:45, and I’ve been reading and transcribing for eight hours, typing, typing, typing. Making only the tiniest dent in 2 of the 140 boxes Pauli left behind. The etiquette of the library is to hop to it when you get the 15-minute warning. And so I do.

Before I leave the Reading Room, I look at the large printed photograph of Pauli Murray. Pauli’s wearing a red jacket over a black shirt and a white priest collar, hands folded, seated on the front edge of a large desk, slightly leaning forward and smiling. Burning wisdom in the eyes, charisma, natural intelligence. Pauli is turning away from decades of teaching and political activism to the priesthood, to a life of ministry.

I could see everything in plain sight. Pauli was gender queer before we had a term for that and became a spiritual leader. It was Bunny Sandler’s great niece, Rora Brodwin, who first proposed the idea of searching for someone to pray to. I think to myself, wow. This is the great mystery unfolding. Deep in the feminist files with Pauli Murray, I have found someone to pray to.

© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.