Pauli was born Anna Pauline Murray in 1910. She renamed herself a more gender neutral, “Pauli,” in her 20s. In the 1930s, Murray tried to make sense of her career ambitions and her attraction to very feminine women. She chronicled her life during this time in a photo album called “The Life and Times of an American Called Pauli Murray.” She documented a roaming lifestyle and many trips with female companions venturing from Petersburg, Virginia to Cape Cod to San Francisco. She also included many images in the album that demonstrated her physical robustness and agility. The image she entitled “The Dude” is among several others such as “Mike and Ike,” “Tennis,” and “The Vagabond” that express Murray’s masculine presentation and ability to do things that people considered out of bounds for women.
Murray drew on the accomplishments and experiences of male ancestors and relatives as a way to legitimize the life she pursued as a civil servant, lawyer, author, and priest, professional arenas that men have historically protected for other men. Later in life, Murray championed women’s rights and feminism becoming one of the prominent women to fight for the inclusion of sex as a protected category in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
A talented researcher, Murray read early articles about sexuality and gender published in European medical journals. This prompted her to talk with doctors about advances in hormone treatments, even admitting herself to mental institutions in the late 1930s The doctors all suggested she try to conform to feminine expectations and refused to prescribe male hormones. If Murray had lived in today’s society, some scholars and activists have suggested that she would have embraced a transgender identity. While it is unclear how Murray would have described herself today, we know she believed in the fullness of self-expression and that society should accept individuals for who they are.