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What I’m Reading: Pauli Murray and Caroline Ware

February 19, 2016

I read books every week — books I’ve assigned my students for class, books I’m reviewing before publication, books we’ll be discussing on my MSNBC show, and books for no other reason than the pleasure of reading. Every week (or so) I share the books I’ve been reading and my reflections. Sign up here.

I stumbled on a wholly surprising text this week – Pauli Murray and Caroline Ware: Forty Years of Letters in Black and White. Published a decade ago and crafted of correspondence more than a half century old, I have found every word and idea immanent and relevant to this political and social moment. The book brings together three of the most distinctive voices in 20th century American feminist scholarship, all of who are tied to the American South.

The volume is edited by the foundational women’s historian Anne Firor Scott of Duke University whose work on Southern white women and respectability altered both feminist and Southern historiography. While on a research trip to the Schlesinger Library, Scott accidentally discovered four decades of personal correspondence between Pauli Murray and Caroline Ware.

Murray was an African American woman born in 1910 in North Carolina whose scholarship, legal advocacy, and political organizing on behalf of civil rights was matched by her uncompromising commitment to gender equity. She went on to challenge the gender barrier in the Episcopal church by becoming an ordained priest. Ware was a white woman born into privilege, whose life work as a historian, activist, and advocate occupied the intersections of labor, civil rights, and women’s rights. Though born in Massachusetts, Ware spent most of her adult life working, organizing, and convening other scholars and activists on her large farm in Northern Virginia.

These two women from divergent backgrounds, whose lives were profoundly shaped by the inequities of American racism and class inequality, nonetheless shared a set of intellectual and political commitments that kept them writing regular letters to one another from 1943 until 1985. To read these women in their unguarded, utterly ordinary, yet profoundly authentic interactions with one another across a rapidly changing American landscape is breathtaking.

I have read many works by and about Pauli Murray and never knew the emotional and psychological battle she waged around gender identity until I read her letters. I have long admired Caroline Ware’s activism, but had no understanding of the role she played as an interlocutor for young scholars until seeing these conversations unfold on the page.

If you have grown weary of stump-speech rhetoric and debate about our democratic system that privileges spectacle over substance, turn off the TV and pick up this engaging conversation about the possibilities of the American project between these unlikely and fascinating correspondents.

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