Mary Frances Lyle ’79 dies at 80

Aug 16, 2016

Mary Frances Hodges Lyle '79Mary Frances Hodges Lyle died of cancer Aug. 6. Lyle was 40 when she entered Vanderbilt Law School in 1976. During the decades she practiced law, she significantly advanced the position of women in Tennessee. And, each Sunday, she prepared a comfort-food feast for her family.

As a law student, Lyle co-authored a report, “Poor People and the Insurance Industry in Tennessee,” with Nashville attorney Margaret Behm, which was published by the National Center on Poverty Law and cited in a Federal Trade Commission report. The project highlighted high costs and abusive sales practices for insurance products sold to low income people, and the report became the subject of a television news exposé.

“As a result of her work, Mary Frances landed on ’60 Minutes’ with Mike Wallace,” Behm recalled. “She handled him beautifully.”

Lyle first entered college at the University of Arkansas in 1952, but was forced to drop out after a year when her mother told her that her father could not afford to send her back for further education, as he had to save money to educate her younger brother. With the support of her husband, Mike, Lyle returned to college in 1964 and earned her B.A. at the University of Louisville, magna cum laude, in 1966. She taught third grade for 10 years before entering law school.

Lyle’s youngest son, David, was in high school when she started law school. She dropped him off each day on her way to law classes at Vanderbilt. In 1981, she was one of several women lawyers who founded the Lawyer’s Association for Women. As a lobbyist with the Nashville Women’s Political Caucus, she spent 25 years fighting for legislation that benefited women in the workplace and in family law proceedings. Lyle received Nashville’s prestigious ATHENA Award, which honors local women leaders, in 2004 and a lifetime achievement award from the Women’s Political Collaborative of Tennessee in 2016.

Lyle’s legal career was focused on improving the lives of women and children. Early in her career she successfully argued an important employment law case, Lynch v. Freeman, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that the anatomical differences between women and men constitute “immutable characteristics” under the law, just as race, color and national origin. As a lobbyist for the Tennessee Women’s Political Caucus, she was involved in drafting and passing a maternity leave act that preceded the federal Family and Medical Leave Act by several years, and the Homemaker Protection Act, which gained legal recognition for the homemaker’s role as an economic contribution to marital assets, included pension benefits as marital property, and established the concept of rehabilitative alimony to enable women who subordinated their careers for the benefit of the family to regain their earning capacities following divorce.

Lyle’s efforts also helped protect victims of domestic violence from being denied insurance coverage and from refusal of insurers to pay benefits based on their status as victims of abuse, and supported the creation of the Tennessee Domestic Violence State Coordinating Council, which designed a domestic violence training course and curriculum for law enforcement and judicial personnel. She lobbied for the creation of the 1989 Tennessee Child Care Facilities Loan Guaranty Corporation, which guaranteed loans for the start-up and expansion of child care facilities. In recognition of these and other services to women, the Women’s Political Collaborative of Tennessee honored Lyle with a Lifetime Achievement Award in April, at her final public appearance before her death.

Dedicated to addressing the problems of poverty, oppression and political disenfranchisement, Lyle helped form Women in Business Inc., was a founding member of the Project to End Abuse through Counseling and Education, served on the boards of Court Appointed Special Advocates and the Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee, was president of the boards of both the League of Women Voters of Nashville and Planned Parenthood, and was a founding member of Tennessee Leadership. She was also the Business and Professional Women’s Club’s 1990 “Woman of the Year,” received the 1995 Harry Burn Award from the Tennessee Women’s Political Caucus, and was named the 1998 “Small Business Administration Advocate of the Year” in Tennessee.

A regular columnist in the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Magazine, she was a frequent lecturer on family law at continuing legal education seminars of the Tennessee Bar Association and the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association. She was a professor of domestic relations at the Nashville School of Law from 2002 to 2006.

The first professional organization Lyle joined–as a 17-year-old bank employee in Mena, Arkansas–was the Business and Professional Women, and the organization always held a special place in her heart. In an interview with the BPW of Tennessee, Lyle was asked, “What advice would you give to any young woman who is beginning her career?” She replied, “That she educate herself to her highest potential in her area of interest. That she then go forward with courage to take the risks without which there can be no significant achievement. That she look upon failure as a ‘learning opportunity.’”

Mike Lyle, her husband of 61 years, died in April. She is survived by four children, 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.