September 06, 2018 Trailblazer

Obituary

Miriam E. Wolff, Lawyer, Port Director and Judge, Dies at 102

Miriam E. Wolff, a lawyer and judge who was the first woman port director of the Port of San Francisco, died on August 27, 2018, in Los Gatos, California.  She was 102 years old.

She died of natural causes, said her sister-in-law Marilyn Wolff.

Beginning in the 1940s, Judge Wolff was a trailblazer in a male-dominated legal profession.  At the age of eleven as a sixth-grade student in the Los Angeles public schools, she decided she wanted to be a lawyer and held true to that vision through her undergraduate years at Stanford University.  She was one of three women in the 1940 graduating class of Stanford Law School, where she was told by some faculty members that she was taking up a man’s place.

Upon graduation Judge Wolff encountered difficulty in finding a job in a law firm, very few of which were willing to hire a woman lawyer in that era.  Instead, she took a civil service examination and went to work as a Deputy Attorney General for the State of California in San Francisco.  She served in that role for twenty-three years, handling a wide range of cases including business, administrative and environmental law matters with a special emphasis on maritime and admiralty law.

In 1968 she was selected by the Port of San Francisco to be its Chief Counsel and in 1970 became the Port Director, the first woman to serve as director of any major world port.  As Port Director, Judge Wolff worked to improve the Port’s labor-management relations and to modernize the port facilities.

She also took a leading role in opposing race and gender discrimination by organizations leasing property from the Port.  The World Trade Club was located in the Ferry Building, one floor above Judge Wolff’s office.  It did not admit women to membership or allow them to eat luncheon in its dining room.   Judge Wolff successfully persuaded the club to alter its rules and became one of its first women members.  She also made it clear to other restaurants on Port property that they could no longer refuse to serve customers on racial grounds.

In 1975 Judge Wolff stepped down as Port Director after five years.  She was then appointed the first woman judge on the Municipal Court of Santa Clara County by Governor Ronald Reagan.  One of her first acts as judge was to allow women to wear pants suits in her courtroom, a controversial issue at the time.  After a decade on the bench where she primarily heard criminal cases, Judge Wolff retired from the bench in 1986 at age 70.  For ten years thereafter she continued to hear cases by assignment by the court.

Miriam Evelyn Wolff was born in Portland, Oregon on July 24, 1916.  Her parents were Leon Wolff, a practicing physician, and Rose Hochberg Wolff.  She had a younger brother Lippman Wolff who became a dentist.  The family moved from Portland to Los Angeles when Judge Wolff was ten.

Throughout her career Judge Wolff was a mentor to many aspiring young women and helped to open opportunities for them.  She was active in Zonta International, a women’s service club.  She chaired the Stanford Law School Board of Visitors and was a member of the California Judges Association, the Santa Clara County Bar Association, the National Association of Women Judges and the American Bar Association.  She also chaired the Santa Clara County Drug Abuse Commission and the Santa Clara County Judicial Systems Advisory Board as well as serving on the Santa Clara County Law Library Commission.

After retirement Judge Wolff was able to indulge her life-long passion for travel.  She also became a volunteer at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center and helped to arrange and lead a number of art tours for the Center.  She was a long-time resident of Los Altos Hills, California and was living at The Terraces of Los Gatos, a retirement community, at her death.

Her survivors include her nephews Steven Wolff and Larry Wolff and her niece Lori Wolff as well as five great nieces and nephews.

Click here to find the Honorable Miriam E. Wolff's oral history.