Season 1

Feminist Files: Episode 9 – A Mystery Solved
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In the last letter in the folder of correspondence with Bunny, Pauli Murray writes to share news of the ordination into the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, and Bunny is invited to the ceremony for Reverend Doctor Murray! Pauli reflects on the slow work of change, and how many “lost causes” can, by taking the long view, eventually be won.



Leigh: So the women beat back the many attempts to weaken Title IX with Patsy Mink at the helm in Congress and Bunny Sandler behind the scenes, galvanizing and organizing women, when the final attempt to exempt athletics, the Casey Amendment, is defeated. Congress finally approves the regulations for Title IX—how it will be implemented across the country. And schools are given three years to comply. Bunny gets busy working to provide information.

Jodie: It started off with the newsletter, which was mimeographed one page initially. And you got ink all over your fingers. If you did it yourself, a terrible process. And I just sorta figured out what ought to be done and did it.

Leigh: Bunny was in communication with women across the country so that they knew their rights and so that colleges could comply with the new regulations. She could hold their feet to the fire when they did not.

 Jodie: Essentially what I was doing was making them better advocates with information. You know, some Neanderthals, yes. And if people have information, then many of them will do the right thing.

 Leigh: Meanwhile, Pauli Murray and Roy uprooted their whole life and moved to New York City in the hot sticky summer of 1973. Pauli left a tenure-track position at Brandeis to attend seminary, to begin studying to become a priest. A whole new life.

I had to find out what became of Pauli and Roy. What happened to Pauli and Roy when they made that treacherous journey to New York City? Changing everything. And I had to solve the mystery of the death of R., the single initial R. Who was R., and what happened to Pauli’s life after R.?

There was one more letter in the letter collection between Bunny Sandler and Pauli Murray. One last letter from 1976—and boy—what a letter it turned out to be.


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.


Leigh: Join me and an ensemble of actors as we discovered the stealth politics of Title IX. This is Feminist Files episode 9, “A Mystery Solved.”

One of my favorite things about working in audio so far is listening to the actors find the voice of the character.

Samira: Pauli’s Christmas letter.

Leigh: It’s like when you’re in the archive and you find a document, they come alive to you. But when the actor finds their voice, something else happens. That’s when a document or a piece of paper becomes a story.

Samira: Pauli’s Christmas letter.

Leigh: The actor brings their curiosity. The actor brings their empathy, their personal investment. Samira has gotten invested, for sure.

Samira: I’m Samira Wiley, and I’m portraying Pauli Murray: author, activist, and consequential feminist.

Leigh: 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. 

Feminist file Pauli Murray letters, 1970 to 1976. I opened the folder flat on the table. And begin to take a look. It’s Christmas 1976, and Pauli Murray is feeling euphoric.

Samira: December 21st, 1976. Dear family and friends, Christmas joy to each of you. In a spirit of conservation, I combine this seasonal letter with the solemn announcement, the sacred and the profane.

Leigh: It’s Christmas 1976. Jimmy Carter has just been elected President. There’s hope in the air, and Pauli can feel it. It’s cold outside, but Pauli doesn’t care. Pauli writes:

Samira: As I write, I am bundled into two sets of Wooly’s fleece-lined boots and extra sweaters. In commenting to friends that I hoped the new Carter administration would bring fresh wins to Washington, I did not anticipate that his announcement of a first in his future cabinet would be accompanied by a chilling 50 mph blast. It almost blew Sojourner Truth, my Dotty VW off the Woodrow Wilson bridge.

Leigh: Yes, Pauli nicknamed the car Sojourner Truth. I know you’re on the edge of your seat, waiting to find out what happened to good boy Roy, the black Labrador Retriever from that terrifying trip to New York City in the hot summer of 1973. While he’s mentioned here too, still up to his sweet mischief.

Samira: It also sent Roy, the black Labrador Retriever, sneaking into my bedroom for warmth and comfort where he is now stretched full length on my bed in my absence. Forgive my mildly euphoric state.

Leigh: Roy! Forgive me, I love this dog. This is a Christmas letter circa 1976. We have it because Bunny Sandler, Great Aunt Bunny, thought to keep it and to preserve it. Pauli describes the year 1976 as one of incredible pressure, swings of the pendulum between great joy and great sorrow. And yet with the election of Democrat Jimmy Carter, Pauli’s own word: euphoric.

Samira: Forgive my mildly euphoric state.

Leigh: President-elect Carter’s announcement of a first in his cabinet has Pauli feeling euphoric. The first referred to here is Patricia Roberts Harris, who was a fellow student with Pauli at Howard. Harris will soon become the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Carter administration, the first black woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.

The year is 1976. The Nixon administration and the Vietnam War have both ended with Watergate in ’74 and the fall of Saigon in ’75. Two dark chapters closed. And President Gerald Ford, tasked with rehabilitating the Republican brand after Nixon’s mess of lies, is soundly defeated by President-elect Jimmy Carter, the Democratic governor of Georgia. Teased as a peanut farmer and Sunday school teacher, Carter is a man of deep faith, both in the church and in his belief in a better America.

1976 is the year of the Bicentennial, 200 years since the Declaration of Independence. And indeed it seems that progress is finally being made towards realizing those glorious aspirations that all were created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “Our long national nightmare is over,” the words were spoken by Ford on assuming the presidency, but it took Carter’s election for many to believe that it might actually be true. Euphoria, as Pauli names it.

Samira: Forgive my mildly euphoric state.

Leigh: And then under the heading IMPORTANT ITEMS, all caps, Pauli writes.

Samira: This brings me to the enclosed announcement of the most significant event of my own life. In May 1976, I received the Master of Divinity degree cum laude from General Theological Seminary, New York City. This was no small effort. Seminary training involves the total individual and is the most rigorous three years of discipline I have ever experienced. And this includes my four-year study for the doctorate at Yale Law School. I have been immeasurably enriched if exhausted by this experience.

Leigh: This is where my narrative journey with Pauli Murray began quite accidentally when I randomly opened a journal from 1973, when Pauli left Boston to travel to New York City to become a student again at age 63—what Pauli called the ordeal of 1973. I had stumbled upon a journal entry describing Pauli’s first day in New York City.

Samira: The neighborhood is depressing, but this is New York City. 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 first time I read the journal I didn’t know who R. was, but I knew enough about Pauli to suspect that R. was Pauli’s lover. Also, the initial R.—the use of the initial—keeps the gender of the person anonymous. It’s kind of a queer code when you need to keep the gender a secret.

This is the moment that I picked up the narrative thread of Pauli’s life. In Pauli’s own words:

Samira: I almost hit a crisis today. The heat, the confusion, hunger, recoiling from the dirt and drabness of the city, that loneliness.

Leigh: Pauli is in a state of despair, life uprooted.

Samira: I am truly on my own, but in each major turn of my life, God has raised up new friends. 

Leigh: Something has happened that has sent Pauli down this road. It’s the death of R.

Samira: All in all, considering the chaos I found upon arriving, I managed to muddle through without coming apart at the seams.

Leigh: Pages and pages of journal entries documenting Pauli’s struggle—how to fit the considerable library of books into a two-room New York City apartment and above all wrestling with the absence of R.

Samira: The presence of absence day after day. The struggle is for acceptance of what has happened, a squirm and inwardly squeal, but I cannot change it. 

Leigh: Then Pauli’s in school, in seminary: General Theological Seminary in New York City.

Samira: Today is the first day of orientation, and I’m nervous and a little afraid. It’s a new situation, new people. Knowing almost no one and feeling strange, I’m as tight as a drum.

Leigh: Pauli’s got the apartment set up, living simply on $10,000 of life insurance left by R.

Samira: When I arrived here, at times I thought I would hardly make it, but it now appears that most of the crucial problems have been solved. I have fought the roaches to a draw. They seem fewer and not quite so bold, but it will mean a continual battle and no letup to keep them under control. I finally got all the books unpacked and brought upstairs yesterday. It was a real achievement through steady plugging away.

Leigh: For the next three years, Pauli is a full-time student. Total immersion and total devotion to study as only Pauli could. And then Pauli’s done. Pauli’s graduated. And in December 1976, in this Christmas letter, Pauli has come full circle from the ordeal of 1973. Pauli writes to friends and family to tell them.

Samira: On January 8th, 1977, 10:30 AM at the Washington Cathedral, DC. I will, God willing, be ordained a priest. Symbolically I will be one of six ordinates, three men and three women, and the first Negro—my preference woman—to be admitted into the priesthood in the Anglican Communion USA. I invite each of you to join me in person, in prayer or in good thoughts, during this solemn rite.

Leigh: It was a long journey from Hunter to Howard, to UC Berkeley, to Yale, to now, and the decision to leave activism behind and become a priest. This is what happened to Pauli after Title IX.

Samira: Many friends have asked me questions about my title and how one is to address a woman priest. The priesthood is so new to women in the church. We have not had time to counsel with one another and come up with a consensus with respect to the use of the pastoral word Father. I cannot conceive of being called Mother Murray. Can you? 

Leigh: Having left both the civil rights and women’s rights movements behind, Pauli seems to be making the best of the limitations of medicine, science, and social stigma. Pauli claims a new identity.

Samira: Academic clergy sometimes call themselves the Reverend Doctor or just the Rev, et cetera. Since I worked so hard to get that Yale doctorate, I am retaining it. The Reverend Doctor. I assume that you will continue to call me Pauli.

Leigh: We have this letter; this letter was found in the feminist files of Bunny Sandler, Bernice Bunny Sandler, Great Aunt Bunny where the series began.

Jodie: Take care of yourself. The women’s movement needs you. Write on and on and on. With much love, Bunny. P.S. Someday I am actually going to write you a short, short letter.

Leigh: Both Bunny and Pauli donated their papers to the Schlesinger Library. Bunny had the foresight to put their correspondence together so the letters could be read side by side.

Samira: Finally, a theological statement is in order. Theologies speak of God moving in history. My ordination as a Negro woman priest comes some 172 years after the first Afro American male priest was ordained in 1804 at the age of 58. I am only eight years older than he was at the time. And thankfully, my approval for admission into the priesthood has come one month after the absolute minimum of service required. Absalom Jones, our first Black priest, had to wait 10 years, 1794 to 1804. As I endure the period of waiting for this event, a period of testing every breath of prayer, I reflect upon this historical sequence as well as upon the history of the early Christian Church. The Holy Spirit in our church moves slowly at times, but it does move.

Leigh: In the hardbound journal written in 1973, Pauli wrote:

Samira: The inconceivable has happened.

Leigh: And then for pages and pages and pages in the journal, Pauli is in mourning for R., the single initial R. I needed to know if my hunch was right—that the mysterious R. was Paul’s lover. So I turned to Pauli’s biographer, Rosalind Rosenberg, to find out. Who is R.?

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


Leigh: I spoke to Rosalind Rosenberg by phone. The recording wasn’t great, so I asked actor Susan Burns to read the transcript for us. This is some of what Rosalind Rosenberg said when I asked her: Who is R.? 

Susan Burns: Irene Barlow was the manager at Paul, Weiss, the law firm in New York, a liberal law firm in New York. Pauli Murray got a job at Paul, Weiss in 1957. And she met Rene there.

Leigh: The answer to the question who is R. is Irene Barlow. Irene Barlow also known as Rene.

Susan Burns: They bonded on religious grounds and on political grounds, and they became what they referred to each other as partners. They were very close. They had wills and left everything to each other.

Leigh: They were partners.

Susan Burns: Rene was an immigrant from England. Working class, worked her way through school. So they also had the common bond of having both struggled economically.

Leigh: Pauli’s the first Black woman ever to work at Paul, Weiss as an attorney.

Susan Burns: Rene was at the forefront of opening law firms to diverse staff. She was in charge of the staff at Paul, Weiss, so she had African American, Asian staff at a time when that was very unusual.

Leigh: When I randomly opened the hardbound journal from 1973, Pauli was facing the inconceivable, the loss of Rene Barlow, the manager at Paul, Weiss. Pauli’s beloved, who I would later find out died of breast cancer. Pauli didn’t share the details of this personal pain in the Christmas letter. It’s hardly even hinted at. But in the journals left behind, you can see and feel the real toll, the real cost of a life dedicated to social progress—how much work, how much disappointment. The Christmas letter continues.

Samira: For one in whom the problems of race and sex meet, who is committed to individual human rights and who desires to be a force in liberation and reconciliation, I walk in the tradition of people of color who have broken new ground and opened opportunities for others, because they were women and men of great faith.

On January 8th, 1977. I would like to share the reaffirmation of this faith with all of you. Love and prayers, Pauli.

Leigh: And then in the letter, Pauli gives very detailed directions to the house in DC. Bunny was invited to the ceremony. Maybe she went. There’s a photograph in the archives of the Schlesinger. Pauli and Bunny Sandler, they’re at a party. And they’re kind of smiling for the camera. Consequential feminists, the nerdy revolutionaries. In Pauli’s case, fighting for women, fighting for black women—and all the while very privately dealing with profound questions about gender identity.

This is Rosalind Rosenberg.

Susan Burns: She went to law school to become a lawyer at a time when only 1% of all lawyers were women. She earned a PhD in law at Yale in 1965, so that she could insist that people not call her Ms. Murray. But rather she always insisted from 1965 forward that people call her Dr. Murray. She became a priest for complicated reasons. I don’t want to reduce everything to her gender identity struggles. She became a priest, because she was a very religious person. And because it was a way of dealing with her grief over the loss of Rene. But she also became a priest, because it was the last frontier of opening up a world that had long been closed to women.

Leigh: Pauli was one of the very first women to become an Episcopal priest and the first Black woman to become an Episcopal priest.

Susan Burns: And I can imagine she—with her short hair and her priest garments—she was sometimes called Father Murray. I’m sure that pleased her. So in the sense of performing masculinity and in the only ways that are available to her, becoming a priest makes perfect sense.

Leigh: My process in the archive was really the opposite of Bunny Sandler. It wasn’t scientific at all. It wasn’t data driven. It was random, messy, accidental. It was pretty gratifying knowing that I had figured out a part of history on my own, that I accidentally discovered Pauli’s motivation to leave everything behind and become a priest. I sat and did my research at the table in the corner of the Reading Room, under a portrait of Pauli Murray, wearing the priest vestments. I’m not a trained historian. I’m just fumbling my way through. So it was nice to know that I got something right. Actually I got two things right. That R. was Pauli’s lover. And that Pauli became a priest in part because of the loss of R.

Susan Burns: Pauli Murray is buried next to Rene in a cemetery in Brooklyn. They were each other’s family and in a way that was not understood at the time as legitimate, but today I think resonates with people as a choice. 

Leigh: So they were each other’s family. I had asked if it was Greenwood Cemetery. It wasn’t Greenwood. It was Cypress Hill.

When we came upon that text in the recording session, I explained to Samira what Rosalind had explained to me, that Pauli Murray is buried next to Irene Barlow in a cemetery in Brooklyn.

Samira: They are. I could cry. Wow. Wow.

Leigh: And then we returned to Pauli’s journal. Pauli’s life coaching again, humanity, and vulnerability, and resolve.

Samira: New beginnings. I falter daily. I dilly dally and find excuses for not doing things, but I’m inching along slowly, slowly.

Leigh: Pauli’s second autobiography was quite aptly titled Song in a Weary Throat. It took many more years to write, almost a decade, not quite the year 2000 as Pauli joked in a letter to Bunny.

Samira: For my own sake, I sent my black Labrador Retriever Roy away to dog camp, shut myself up in the apartment, and wrote four chapters of the sequel to Proud Shoes. At the rate I am traveling, the books will be finished by the year 2000, but it has been started at least.

Leigh: It was published in 1986. Pauli died in 1985, so the second autobiography was published after Pauli’s death.

In 2012, Pauli Murray was canonized as saint. Well, in the Episcopal church saints aren’t really canonized, but their names are kept in a book of holy men and women. Pauli Murray is there.

For our purposes here, we might rename that book. We could call it the book of women who come on too strong, or the more gender neutral: they who walked before us on whose shoulders we now stand.

What do we mean when we talk about the saints? Maybe a saint is a carrier. Someone who carries people, energy, and ideas along without anyone ever knowing their name. Someone who carries their grief in secret, because the world is not ready to receive them. They carry the pain of the world until the world is ready to change.

Remember Bunny’s greatest hits joke list, original comic relief from the women’s movement. There’s a joke here that kind of fits the moment.

Jodie: Last but not least is a newly discovered revelation from the Bible, which reads: And they shall beat their pots and pans into printing presses and weave their cloth into protest banners. Nations of women shall lift up their voices with the nations of other women. Neither shall they accept discrimination anymore.

Leigh: One of the greatest heartbreaks of this investigation for me was finding out that at the end of Pauli’s life, Pauli thought about a lot of the struggles as lost causes, personal failures—that change hadn’t happened faster or fast enough. But if you think about it, what Pauli Murray called lost causes have now come of age: the cause of civil rights and Black Lives Matter, the cause of women’s rights in the #MeToo movement, the cause of LGBTQ+, the broader movement for equal rights of the present day. These were all Pauli Murray’s causes going back to the 1930s.

This is Rosalind Rosenberg.

Susan Burns: You can’t understand the civil rights movement without understanding Pauli Murray’s contribution to the civil rights movement. You can’t understand the history of feminism without including Pauli Murray, because she was one of the founding members of the National Organization for Women. In fact, she had been calling for a NAACP for women before NOW was even in formation. You can’t understand the liberalization of theology in the 1970s without taking into account the contribution of Pauli Murray. Every single one of those histories are better understood if you see Pauli there in the background, always in the background, but making fundamental contributions.

Leigh: As my interview with Rosalind Rosenberg was winding down, we were saying her goodbyes, and as sometimes happens in an interview, she had one more thing to say. She wanted to tell me this.

Susan Burns: The papers of Pauli Murray are vast. And the first thing that occurred to me was she was poor most of her life. And yet she dedicated space in her living quarters to cull an archive that eventually came to about 130 boxes. She had a sense of her place in history that was really unusual.

Leigh: I think in the end it was about 150 boxes.

Susan Burns: And it was clear that although she was very private in her own lifetime, she left these papers for a reason. She hoped that one day someone would understand how difficult it was to live with struggles over gender identity at a time in the early 20th century, when the word transgender didn’t even exist, when she was rejected again and again by doctors, when she asked for hormones to make her body conform more completely with her sense of herself as male. But that struggle informed her thinking about the law in a way that has become very important to people of every gender identity, of every sexual orientation. And I think it’s important that her legacy be understood.

Leigh: And as my recording session with Samira was wrapping up, Samira reflected.

Samira: My mother was the first African American woman ordained in the Baptist church in Washington DC. And she was the reverend doctor. And my dad is also the reverend doctor. Funnily enough, my wife just calls my dad Rev. [Laughs] Hey, Rev! Yeah, yeah.

Leigh: Pauli’s life struck a chord.

Samira: In the Baptist church, they don’t use the word priest, but, yeah, reverend. And then she became a pastor, which is that, you know, the leader of…the highest in the church. My parents were very liberal, and they started doing union ceremonies in DC in the church before it was even legal. They were an open and affirming church and made sure they had, you know, people of…changed even the mission statement of the church to include sexual orientation in the language. And all the people I grew up with—people who I thought were my family—like just left. So it’s been a journey seeing the way people treated my parents. It’s been hard.

Pauli talks about Jane Crow at one point. And they lost like a third of the church even before LGBT, you know, queer issues became a part of the conversation, because my mother wanted to be a co-equal with my father. That was not okay. Not in the Baptist church, that was not okay.

Leigh: I’ve always been fascinated by this idea of a calling or a vocation ever since I was a little kid. Pauli’s life as an intellectual and an activist took many forms, as an attorney, someone at the forefront of civil disobedience in this country, as a writer, until it lands here in the third act of Pauli’s life. The culmination of all those ways of being in the world to a life of ministry, ministering to others.

Samira: Friday, September 7th, 1973, 2:05 PM.

Leigh: One of my favorite journal entries is the one from September 7th.

Samira: Last night, I read the stories of women who had been called to the holy ministry. Although the circumstances varied, the same theme ran through almost all of this description: hesitancy, fear, sometimes attempted evasion, but a relentless pursuit of that inner voice until there was surrender to the will of God. I recognize the similarity of these experiences to my own. In my case, it took a catalytic and catastrophic event, deeper than any I have ever known before, to bring me face to face with the issue. I would probably have not recognized it had I not been shaken loose from my mooring and seemingly cast into the depths. All the love and concerns centered upon the one must now be shared with many. And it seems best if I simply surrender my anxieties and be led from one step to another. And I often feel like a frightened child: lost, afraid, hardly daring to admit how uncertain I am about everything, learning to walk all over again.

Leigh: Samira and I talked about this idea of a calling and what that means to an artist.

Samira: I’m so happy you said that. Yeah. I’m so happy you said that. I mean, honestly, I, yeah, my parents…having them be in the ministry and having that be really…since both of them were there…my only point of contact with like choosing a path for your career. I have always thought about my own work as a ministry, because that’s just what I know, you know. So I definitely feel called to do this and I think that’s from them, you know.

Leigh: It was Rora Brodwin who first proposed the idea that we should have female American heroes, mythological figures, someone to pray to. So if you’re listening out there somewhere in the blue ethers–St Pauli and the countless others who walk with and beside you and the ones left behind too who are still waiting for justice–please hear our prayer.

Our next and final episode will be the finale where we’ll find out what happened to Bunny Sandler, Patsy Mink, and Edith Green, and how the future of Title IX is still being written.


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