1873 – 1957
Of the approximately eighty women who were instrumental in opening up the legal profession for women in the United States, Frances Wolf was the first Jewish woman in that very select group.
She was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on June 18, 1873, the oldest of Tobias and Kate (Klein) Wolf’s eight children. Only Wolf, two sisters, and three brothers survived to maturity. Frances was a second mother to her siblings, breadwinner and caregiver all her life, most importantly after her father’s death in 1906.
Wolf’s mother, Kate Klein, who was born in Baltimore, the daughter of a storekeeper, came to Memphis with her parents and met Tobias Wolf, an office worker. The Wolfs were a typical southern Jewish family: Reform in religion and southern in culture, keeping only the High Holy Days and cooking southern-style food.
After graduating from Memphis High School and a business school, Wolf was employed as a clerk. Sent by her employer to work in a booth at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, she became interested in women’s rights and the law when she visited the Woman’s Pavilion. On her return, she began to read law and went to work for the law firm of John P. Houston. In 1903–1904, she attended the University of Tennessee law department, but not as a degree candidate. As the state of Tennessee would not admit her to practice law, she went to St. Louis and was admitted to the Missouri bar in 1904, returning to Houston’s office to work as a law clerk. Meantime, Marion Griffin, who worked in Judge T.M. Scruggs’s office in Memphis, left to study law at the University of Michigan. She graduated in 1906 and was admitted to the Michigan bar.
Wolf and Griffin knew each other through their association with Judge Scruggs’s office. Griffin had been lobbying for a woman’s bar admission statute since 1900. When she came back to Memphis in 1906, Wolf joined her, and together they promoted the passage of the bar admission bill. Its enactment in 1907 was the result of their joint effort. The story is told that the two women planned to be admitted at the same time, but Griffin’s friends prevailed upon her to move immediately for admission without telling Frances Wolf. Griffin was admitted in February 1907, and Wolf, after struggling to get over her disappointment, was admitted on July 11, 1907. It was not the first time that two women working together to secure enabling legislation were caught up in a battle for the honor of being the first. The local bar association, however, always recognized both women as pioneers.
Wolf worked as a title lawyer and trial lawyer with John Houston and John Johnson, practicing in all the state’s courts. She was the first woman lawyer to argue before the Court of Civil Appeals. Houston named her executor of his will, and when he died in the late 1920s, Wolf successfully administered his estate with its large real estate holdings. After her mother died in 1934, Wolf retired to take care of an invalid sister.
A woman with a keen sense of humor, she loved music, nature, children, and her ever-growing collection of books, many on Napoleon. Her devotion to her family was exemplary.
Frances Wolf died at age eighty-three of arteriosclerosis and pulmonary edema on January 28, 1957. She is buried in Temple Israel Cemetery in Memphis.
Bench and Bar of Memphis Memorial Record. Memphis, Tenn. (n.d.); Memphis Commercial Appeal, July 12, 1907, and Obituary. January 29, 1957; Watkins, Emma. Interview, July 1961.