Miriam Wolff: LAH resident was pioneer for women in legal profession

Mrs. Wolff

Miriam Wolff, a longtime Los Altos Hills resident and a trailblazer who broke the glass ceiling for women in the legal profession, died Aug. 27 at age 102.

Mrs. Wolff was one of only three women in Stanford Law School’s Class of 1940. She became the first woman director for the San Francisco Port Authority in 1970 and was named the first woman to serve as judge on the Santa Clara County Municipal Court in 1975.

The appointments were just two of the numerous highlights of her long, groundbreaking legal career, which included judicial assignments into the 1990s.

Mrs. Wolff had no shortage of admiring colleagues. In a San Francisco Chronicle article, one peer said her mind was like “a steel trap,” and that as late as 2007, she was recalling specific details of cases she had litigated 30 years before.

The Portland, Ore., native found her calling as a trial lawyer. In her first major job, she served as trial lawyer for the state’s Department of Employment. She went on to become chief researcher for the state’s Court of Appeal, then a deputy attorney general in San Francisco. She worked in the attorney general’s office from 1945 to 1968. She became chief counsel for the Port of San Francisco before port officials asked her to become director.

During her time as director, Mrs. Wolff ended discrimination by the World Trade Club, one of the port’s tenants, against women. Before she arrived, the club didn’t allow women in the dining room for lunch.

She also helped end racial discrimination at Fisherman’s Wharf restaurants by informing them there were clauses in their leases preventing such discrimination.

“The threat of losing their restaurants … was a very powerful motivator,” Mrs. Wolff said in a 2015 Stanford Law School article.

Her appointment to Municipal Court judge in the 1970s had a humorous side story. Margi Gould, her Los Altos Hills neighbor, recalled when Mrs. Wolff asked her to stay by her home phone in case she was called for the job. In the days before cellphones, Mrs. Wolff had a phone with an extra-long cord, enabling Gould to transfer the phone from Mrs. Wolff’s house over to hers. As it turned out, Mrs. Wolff got the word without Gould having to field the call.

Mrs. Wolff said she developed a “thick skin” in dealing with the rampant discrimination of the times.

“I tried not to let (prejudice) affect me,” she said in the Stanford Law School article. “My attitude is, if it’s really going to upset you, maybe you should try doing something else. But continue working on removing prejudice whenever you can.”

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