(WOMENSENEWS)-The struggle over women’s place in all religious denominations in the United States is as old as the founding of the American colonies, but it took on extra force in the 1970s. Beyond power and authority, women wanted a female theology and spirituality to be voiced.
In 1974, eleven women in the Episcopal Church were unofficially ordained ministers by one priest, but were not recognized by the church hierarchy. Pauli Murray’s ordination on January 8, 1977 was a continuation of that effort and a landmark: Murray was a woman of color. She was also 67-years-old, an exceptional writer, poet and life-long civil rights and women’s rights activist.
While attending Hunter College in New York City during the Depression, scrimping on meals to pay expenses, Murray suffered malnutrition, which left her permanently physically frail. Still, she attacked barriers of race and gender ferociously. Refused admission to law school by the University of North Carolina because she was not white and by Harvard University because she was female, she organized protests. In the 1940s, she earned a law degree at Howard University (first in her class and the only woman), while also spearheading acts of civil disobedience against segregated restaurants in Washington. She also was arrested for refusing to move to the back of a Virginia bus.
Murray wrote a memoir in 1956, “Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family,” tracing her African, European and Native American ancestry and revealing the brutal rape of a slave by her master that resulted in Murray’s mother’s birth.
Her legal training led her to suggest an “NAACP for women” to Betty Friedan, leading to the 1966 formation of the National Organization for Women, dedicated to enforcing federal legislation against discrimination. Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” to describe what is now called sexism. After a lifetime of blending the civil rights movement with the quest for women’s equality, when others might have retired, she entered seminary and was officially ordained. Her first mass was held in the Chapel Hill, N.C., church where her slave grandmother had been baptized.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.”