Betsy West & Julie Cohen explain why Pauli Murray is the most important queer you’ve never heard of

Betsy West Headshot: Photo by Kristen Hoebermann
Julie Cohen Headshot: Photo by Myles Pettengill

How could anyone ever top Ruth Bader Ginsberg?

Documentary filmmakers Betsy West & Julie Cohen faced that same question upon completing their Oscar-nominated film RBG. Fortunately, the late, great justice had already given them an idea. That suggestion grew into the newest film by the pair, My Name is Pauli Murray. The movie debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, and is currently looking for distribution.

My Name is Pauli Murray tells the story of the titular writer. Raised as an orphan, Murray grew up in Baltimore and fought to educate herself as a woman of color in the 1930s. By the time she was in her mid-20s, Murray had earned a reputation as a stellar writer and civil rights activist. After earning a law degree from Howard University (where she was the only woman studying law), she went on to an esteemed legal career focusing on issues of Civil Rights for women and people of color. Her theories had a direct influence on later Supreme Court justices Thurgood Marshall, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and would help shape the work of Civil Rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Betty Friedan. Throughout her life, Murray also maintained relationships with women, and embraced a more masculine, genderqueer identity.

So how could so-unique and influential a figure go unnoticed for so long? West & Cohen work to answer that question in My Name is Pauli Murray, and rectify the situation: Murray is an unsung queer titan.

We scored some time to chat with West and Cohen about Murray, the film, and the hidden legacy of one of the United States’ greatest legal minds during the Sundance Film Festival. My Name is Pauli Murray is currently seeking distribution.

[A note about pronouns: several figures interviewed in the film posthumously ascribe he/him and they/them pronouns to Murray over her genderqueer identity. Everyone that knew Murray, however, uses she/her pronouns, and there’s no documentation in Murray’s extensive writings to indicate any discomfort with she/her. As those pronouns are the words Murray herself used, we’ll do the same here.]

How did you first learn about Pauli and her story? Is it true that you got the tip from RBG?

Betsy Wright: You’re right, David. We first heard about Pauli from RBG who really credited Pauli Murray with coming up with the idea of using the 14th Amendment to win equal rights for women.

I got the sense watching the film that Pauli was a very intense, private person. Was her family at all reluctant to open up about her? What reservations did they have?

Julie Cohen: Yeah, I think there was some reluctance. Pauli Murray’s family really wants the legacy of Pauli to get out there into the world. But that kind of puts a heavy burden on any project. Because so many Americans are so unfamiliar with this historical figure, the family wants to make sure that filmmakers are going into this with sincere intentions, to get it right. For us as filmmakers, there was some burden with that. All of us that worked on this film really wanted to do this huge, multi-layered story justice.

Courtesy of Lynne Conroy


JC: But you try not to think about that when you’re actually working on it. That kind of thing looming over you—that’s not a good way to get something done. It’s too much to bear.

I was delighted to see that Paul’s family was so forthright and willing to participate in the film. One of the film’s most elusive figures is Reeny—Pauli’s longtime girlfriend. Did you make any effort to contact the family of Irene Barlow?

BW: We did. Reeny didn’t have children, and as you saw, died in the early 1970s. We did speak to a niece who didn’t really know much about Pauli and was pretty young when Reeny was around. It’s tough when you’re doing stories about people who passed away 45 years ago. We were very lucky that Pauli Murray had younger friends, students she had at Brandis. They really illuminate the film.

The warmth with which they speak of her speaks volumes.

BW: Yeah, the affection that they have for her, and looking back at their younger selves—when they were tough with their teacher, criticizing this teacher—and now understanding.

You make the case in the film that Pauli was an extraordinary influence on some of the greatest minds of modern America—Justice Ginsberg, Thurgood Marshall, Betty Friedan. She seems to exist on the cusp of history, of power, most of her life. It also begs the question: why did she never emerge into the halls of power herself? How much of that was her queerness?

JC: I think there’s a whole variety of reasons. Certainly, prejudice—racism, sexism, some kind of unspoken sense of homophobia or transphobia. Then there’s the fact that a decision on Pauli’s own part, in certain ways, to not be too public for concern about having a private life that wasn’t talked about. Then, there is the interesting fact that in life Pauli did get some attention. Part of this is how do we assess history? There’s been so much talk about people who didn’t get obituaries in The New York Times. Well, Paul’s obituary did appear in The New York Times. Then, decades later, people get a bit lost to history.


JC: As a culture, maybe we don’t know what to make of a figure like Pauli that is involved in so many movements. We talk about an idea who’s time has come. That suggests there is such a thing as having an idea too early for people to latch onto. And that’s Pauli’s experience her entire life—having an idea whose time had not come.

That’s very interesting. It’s also good setup. What becomes clear watching the film is that Pauli was someone far ahead of her time in terms of her personal beliefs and in terms of her thinking. That especially becomes difficult for her when students at Brandis University really ostracize her for fighting segregation, for using the term “Negro.” There’s an irony in that. How much did that experience make her question her own place in the world? How much of that influenced her choice to go into the ministry?

BW: I don’t see it as a retreat.

Courtesy of Pauli Murray Foundation


BW: No. I really don’t see Pauli moving on to a spiritual life as a retreat. It seems, in many ways, kind of the logical progression of her journey. In some ways, Pauli was restless a bit and would make a contribution: desegregating lunch counters, refusing to go to the back of the bus, playing a role in the Civil Rights movement. Then, on to the feminist movement, at a time when people were still thinking about Civil Rights. She was always ahead of the time and on to the next thing. I think Pauli had always been religious.


BW: After the death of Reeny, it makes sense to me. It also allowed Pauli to return to the thing that was the core of Pauli’s experience: writing. So it gave a space for Pauli to minister to people, to write sermons, and to focus on her autobiography.

That’s so interesting when you contextualize it that way. In essence, Pauli had spent her whole life sermonizing. It is kind of a logical progression to go into the ministry on some level. And—the footage you show—she never looks happier than she does in the ministry.

JC: Right.

BW: And Karen, her niece, said that also.

Yes, she says Pauli became a listener. That really struck me. Now, in talking to those that knew her during her stint in the priesthood, what kind of peace did that offer her?

JC: I think the footage speaks volumes. It did seem like Pauli found some degree of peace later in life. Part of that might be the move away from political and legal struggle after struggle. If those boulders were moving that slowly, that’s a frustrating experience. When you stand back and start immersing yourself in the bigger spiritual questions of how to find love or reconcilliation with humanity—and that was the way that Pauli was looking at it—I can imagine that was going to be pretty freeing.

Of course.

JC: If your aim is to feel love for everyone, that’s a goal you can achieve within yourself.

In prep for this interview, I looked at both your filmographies. They’re so similar, so it seems fitting you’ve become collaborators. The two of you have built careers on telling stories about gender, and how it’s weaponized, particularly against women. What is so haunting for you about that theme? What is it you really want audiences to realize?

BW: I feel lucky to have found this space for myself. For the first 25 years, I was a broadcast journalist and someone who was reporting stories. I was very much interested in issues and current events, day to day coverage of the news. But 12 years ago, I started working on a project about the modern women’s movement. I grew up in that movement, I benefited from that movement. So then to have a chance to look back and see what happened—who were the groundbreakers? You know, I didn’t even know what Ruth Bader Ginsberg had done in the 1970s until I started working on that project.

Courtesy of Pauli Murray Foundation


BW: I was a professional woman benefiting from some of the things Ruth Bader Ginsberg had done, and I was pretty ignorant of that. So I was opening up a whole world to give context to my life. And look at all these stories that are available.

Of course.

BW: Julie and I worked on this project about the women’s movement together. It was a few years later we had the idea of doing RBG which seemed to really resonate with people. Obviously, not only had she played a role in the 70s, she was someone so relevant to our world. I don’t know. I find the stories of the people I’ve been able to work on inspiring.

And for you Julie?

JC: I’d say it’s not so much subject matter that we’re drawn to. It’s subject matter so available to be mined. We both came through the journalistic world at a time where the unspoken assumption was that the important people and important stories to be told were stories of white, straight, cis men.


JC: And everybody else didn’t matter. That’s one way of looking at American history. Then, over the past 20 or 30 years, people start realizing: wait a second, maybe women are interesting. Maybe people of color are interesting. Maybe LGBT stories are interesting. So what you have as a result is stories that haven’t been fully told yet. It’s not like we don’t love straight, cis, white men—we’re both married to them.


They’re great, but we know that story already. There are more to be told. Obviously, Pauli Murray’s is a great example of that. You could make 10 movies about her.

I hope we see a biopic at some point. And I love the idea of more treasure to dig up. The two of you also collaborate so much. How do you complete one another as filmmakers?

BW: We have a deep respect for each other. We are similar in our tastes and the issues we’re interested in, and our approach to storytelling. Both of us like to laugh, and like humor. If there’s any opportunity in any of our stories to have a lighter moment, we go for it. We think that’s important.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg in ‘RBG’


BW: We’re focused on storytelling. So I guess we have a similar sensibility. And when we’re stuck—and we often do get stuck—in trying to figure out how to tell a story, we seem to have a good language to bounce things off each other. Something I work on, Julie might say “We don’t need that.” And we have enough respect to say “You’re right.” And we’re good at moving on.

JC: There’s a lot of bouncing off one another. This project had so much material to go through. That also brought in our producer, Talleah McMahon, our editor Cinque Northern. Between the four of us we broke up Pauli’s life into bits that we each worked on then were able to come fresh to something other people were working on and look at it as a whole. Over all, figuring out to proceed was always complicated, but when something is working you all feel it. We said that on RBG, it felt surprising that even if we had a disagreement on how to proceed, there was over all agreement as to whether or not it was working.

That’s terrific. So where to from here?

BW: Well, having said that we are not just focused on women, we are doing a film about another groundbreaking woman, French chef Julia Child.

Of course.

BW: She really broke the mold for women on television and changed the way we think about food and the way we eat. So it’s a really fun project.

Sounds like a joy to watch.

My Name is Pauli Murray is currently seeking distribution.