The Progress of Women Lawyers

From the perspective of diversity, Tennessee's current situation relative to females in the legal profession is outstanding, at least relatively speaking. As my predecessor Gail Ashworth noted in a column last year, we have had our first (and now second) female chief justice, and females enjoy a majority on the Supreme Court. Gail was the fourth female president of the TBA, and current Vice-President Jackie Dixon will be the fifth. By contrast, our friends at the Georgia State Bar have only had one female president, and this year marks the first time Alabama has had a female president. Closer to home, five of my firm's 11 partners are women, and my hometown Chattanooga Bar Association has itself had five women presidents.

But Tennessee was once not as accepting of women lawyers, and it was not so long ago. I can recall the fanfare when Judge Martha Craig Daughtery went on the Tennessee Supreme Court (in 1990), and the feeling of new ground being broken when Pam Reeves became president of the TBA (in 1998). I vaguely recall that my UT law school class of 1981 seemed to have a pretty close ratio of men to women, but faithful attendance at the law school's Thursday night "Rump Court" doubtlessly damaged my ability to recall, as my law partner and classmate Terry Cavett remembers it being closer to only 1/3 female. In 1990, 17 percent of Tennessee lawyers were women. In 2010, 51 percent of those taking the bar exam were women. Things have moved far even during my time as a lawyer.

Notwithstanding all of these "firsts," they are not "the first." That honor belongs to Marion S. Griffin, who was born in 1881, and started out as a stenographer in an Atlanta office. She moved to Memphis, where she began studying law. Although certified to practice by the chancellor and criminal court judge in Shelby County, her petition to be licensed by the Tennessee Supreme Court was dismissed by a 3-2 decision of the court on common law grounds. In Re Griffin, 71 S.W. 746 (Tenn. 1901). The dissenting judges wrote:

We can see no valid objection to a woman's practicing law upon any of the grounds stated. Whether it is best policy for her to do so from a social and pecuniary point of view is a question which addresses itself to her discretion. That she has made wonderful advances in latter years into all the fields of business and all the vocations heretofore occupied by men cannot be denied. In the shops and stores, in the banks and business houses, in lawyers' and doctors' offices, and in all the avenues of trade and commerce, she has pushed her way, either with the encouragement or over the protest of her brothers, until she has established a firm foothold, from which she cannot be removed. No one would deny her, when necessity or the desire for honest independence prompts such action, the right to enter into any field suited to her physical ability and her standing as a true, pure woman; and, while men and women may differ as to the boundaries of her proper sphere, she has by force of her indomitable will and purpose opened up her way into all the avenues of business and trade. She has not even stopped at railroad and military service, and can be found in many of the railroad offices and departments, and in the hospitals and on the field of battle. Certainly the legal arena is not more foreign to her tastes, capacity, and disposition than many places which she now fills with credit and profit. She should be given every chance to make an honest and independent living; and, whether she makes it from necessity or choice, she should not be debarred from it except for good legal reasons. We are not able to see such reasons.


Fortunately, Griffin did not give up. She embarked upon a field of legal study at the University of Michigan and graduated from that law school in 1906. In 1907, the State of Tennessee finally allowed her to sit for the bar examination. She practiced for more than four decades, and in 1923 became the first woman to win election to the Tennessee General Assembly, despite conflict with the powerful Crump political machine in Shelby County. She lived to see women get the right to vote in 1920 and the formation of the first statewide female bar organization, the Women's Section of the TBA, in 1942.

Griffin also lived to see Aug. 7, 1918, almost 80 years before Pam Reeves took the oath of office as president of the Tennessee Bar Association in June 1998. Aug. 7, 1918, was the opening day of the annual meeting of the Tennessee Bar Association on Signal Mountain, near Chattanooga. After a spirited speech by President E. Watkins that stirred patriotic feelings for the American soldiers fighting in France, and which, appropriately, urged support for women's sufferage, Griffin and three other female lawyers were enrolled as members of the TBA.  


Access to Justice is Not a New Idea

While the "President's Perspective" this month continues my theme of highlighting aspects of Tennessee legal history, this issue's Access to Justice theme requires a short note to point out that pro bono legal assistance is not a new concept.

The Memphis Daily Appeal of May 10, 1857, contained a letter from a reader noting that lawyer Isham Green Harris of Memphis, who at that time was a candidate for governor in the 1857 election, provided free legal assistance to an orphan needing the same. Although the Appeal, which was very friendly to Harris, doubtlessly printed the letter to show the public that Harris was a worthy candidate, it instructs us today that there is a long pro bono tradition in Tennessee that should be honored and celebrated.      

— Sam Elliott