Behind the Written Word
Pauli Murray, “The Woman’s Party”, and a Single-mindedness Bordering on Fanaticism
In July of 1977, on an Episcopal pulpit in Maryland, the Reverend Doctor Pauli Murray delivered a sermon entitled “Mary Has Chosen the Best Part.” She began with a stirring exegesis of the verses entitled “At the Home of Martha and Mary” (Luke 10:38-42), and her teaching focused on Jesus’s defense of Mary who, unlike Martha, has done no housework during his visit, but rather has sat at his feet, listening to his teachings. Murray explained that whereas,
Martha followed traditional custom in conformity with the position of women in her time […], we can see Mary as an unusual woman, one who was unwilling to accept the role defined for her and was drawn to Jesus of Nazareth because he treated her as a person with an intellect and a quest for knowledge of God. Jesus recognized her thirst and encouraged it, […] and he defended her decision: “The part that Mary has chosen is best; and it shall not be taken from her.”
Midway through the sermon, which developed into an urgent call to “transform the world,” Murray stated, “It seems appropriate here to point to the life of Alice Paul, founder of the National Woman’s Party, who died last Saturday, July 9, at the age of ninety-two,” and shifted into eulogy. After relating Paul’s biographical history up through her involvement in the passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Murray continued,
Alice Paul quickly realized that the struggle for equality was not over, and in 1923 she wrote and had introduced into Congress the first Equal Rights Amendment ever proposed for women. For forty-nine years, Dr. Paul and her valiant little band of women in the National Woman’s Party introduced the Equal Rights Amendment into every session of Congress until its final passage in 1972. She lived to see thirty-five states ratify the amendment, and only three more states are required to make it become a part of the Constitution.
Alice Paul possessed a single-mindedness bordering on fanaticism, but only such singleness of purpose and total dedication could have kept this issue alive during the intervening years. She was well equipped to supply the leadership and vision necessary for this task. […] She held to her course until the ERA caught the imagination of a new generation of young feminists in the late 1960s and blossomed into a national movement. Miss Paul remained in Washington until Congress passed the ERA and then continued active work on behalf of various state campaigns in Connecticut until about three years ago when she became incapacitated by ill health.
Pauli Murray doesn’t appear in The Woman’s Party as a character, but her life, her work, and her spirit served during my writing process as a guiding light, a highest standard, an ancestral mentor, a fairy godmother… No, that’s not it; I can only imagine Murray would recoil at the “fairy godmother” moniker! How can I find the proper label to capture the central role which Murray played in my understanding of the issues, the people, the motor, and the heart of this play?
Murray (November 20, 1910 – July 1, 1985) was an American civil rights activist, lawyer, and author who late in her life became an Episcopal priest. She was the first Black woman to be ordained as such, in the first year that women were permitted to be ordained. In 1947, when The Woman’s Party is set, Murray had already been hired as Deputy Attorney General in California, and that year not only the National Council of Negro Women, but also Mademoiselle magazine named her “Woman of the Year.” Her absence in the power structure of The National Woman’s Party founded by Alice Paul, and the absence of any woman of color in the leadership of that organization, speaks to a willful exclusion, not a lack of exposure to or knowledge of the high-level, hard-hitting work which women such as Murray were executing. I know I’m not saying anything that anyone who cares about these issues doesn’t already know. But to my mind, Murray transcended that exclusion, and all exclusions, in a way which, while I fear that I may be mitigating the slights she experienced and the struggles she navigated, I can only describe with the religious word “grace.”
The process of writing The Woman’s Party was sparked when I was reading an oral history about Alice Paul as part of my research for a very different potential project. Buried within the hundreds of pages of text, I came across a short section in which Paul discussed a coup attempt within The National Woman’s Party in early 1947 and I knew right away that I wanted to write a play about the events which unfolded at the party headquarters on that night. Delving further into the history, I was struck that the instigator of the coup, Doris Stevens, had once been Alice Paul’s most fervent acolyte, having written a hagiographic history of Paul’s role in the fight for the 19th amendment entitled Jailed for Freedom. The journey from loyal minion to violent usurper always makes for good drama. But it wasn’t until I read Pauli Murray’s eulogy for Alice Paul—more nuanced in its praise than Steven’s hagiography, but no less fervent—that a compelling vision of the drama (and of the character of Alice Paul within that drama) emerged.
I don’t know how beings like Pauli Murray come into existence. That is a question for the ages. But for now, I offer the words with which she ended her sermon, along with the prayer that her intelligent, generous spirit whispers over and inside my play.
Here, then, was a life pervaded by a sense of purpose and wholly dedicated to the fulfillment of her mission. We are reminded of another great contemporary of Alice Paul, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. Miss Paul was one year younger than Mrs. Roosevelt, and her life continued for fifteen years after Mrs. Roosevelt’s death. And while their lifestyles were different and they operated in different arenas, each of these two women in her own way, standing in the Christian tradition, made a lasting impact upon the world in which they lived by their unswerving devotion to the cause of human rights.
Of Alice Paul, as of Eleanor Roosevelt, I think it can be said: “She has chosen the best part; and it shall not be taken away from her.”
What have we chosen?
And let us all say, Amen.
–Rinne B. Groff, April 2021