Joy Brown Wiener


for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Joy Brown Wiener

A hint at what was to come for Joy Brown Wiener was published in the Jackson, Tennessee  Sun, on May 7th, 1942.  A story about an event at the MacDowell Music Club noted that “Ethel Joy Brown, talented twelve-year old daughter of Mrs. Bates Brown, Memphis pianist and organist…will give a program of violin, cello and piano… Young Miss Brown is giving concerts preparing for her New York debut.”

Joy’s mother, Ethel had seen this coming, discovering that, at age four, her daughter had perfect pitch.  At seven Joy won a state competition, at nine a national competition.  At ten she debuted professionally at Memphis’ Goodwyn Institute.  By age fifteen Joy was the youngest member in the then sixty-six year history of the St. Louis Symphony. To continue her schooling, St. Mary’s Episcopal School arranged for Joy to take classes through Washington University. That same year she also studied at Juilliard in New York. While in New York, Joy performed at Carnegie Hall and before a Central Park crowd with the New York City Symphony Orchestra.   

At a time when her peers back home were learning to drive, Joy was touring Europe. She won a competition in Paris and performed on stages in London, Italy, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands.  She was invited to be part of the Italian Chamber Orchestra and was applauded by the Queen Mother of Belgium.  The Romanian composer and conductor George Enescu heard Joy perform and pronounced her “one of the most talented violinists of the younger generation.”

But, as sometimes happens, home called. Back in Memphis Joy completed a degree at Southwestern (now Rhodes).  In the spring of 1953, in the inaugural season of the Memphis Symphony, Joy was Concertmaster, a position she came to hold longer than any other woman in America.

Meanwhile, there was a man.  Russell Wiener had recently returned from Korea where he had served as a Navy dentist.  Music was Joy’s first love, so when Russell first proposed, Joy warned warned him: “You don’t know what it is to be married to a musician… I’ve done it all my life… if I couldn’t do it I wouldn’t be the person you wanted to marry.”

Marry they did, in 1956. They had two daughters Donna and Martha.  They shared a love of music, the arts and each other until Russell’s passing in 2015.  In 1992, the Governor of Tennessee acknowledged the Wieners as Patrons of the Arts.  

She calls her gifts a “God thing,” but it was never just music with Joy Brown Wiener.  She admired writer, musician, and missionary Albert Schweitzer, who believed that true Christianity should work towards a unity of faith and purpose.  She still follows that path.

In her decades with the Symphony Joy discovered a love for teaching and began to tour schools around Memphis, bringing classical music to young people.  At Lindenwood Christian Church, she volunteered to teach young people the singing of hymns, which led to many years of teaching Sunday School.

In her long life, Joy Brown Wiener has given selflessly.  Among the groups to which she has devoted time and energy are City Beautiful, the Symphony League, the Girl Scouts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, the Brooks Museum.   

But Joy never lost the thrill of performing.  She toured widely and became known to millions through the television series The Joy of Music.

1992 Joy Brown Wiener stepped away from the Memphis Symphony, not to retire but to focus more energy on teaching and mentoring promising young students. Today, eight of her students perform with the Memphis Youth Symphony. 

Joy says, “If you know how to do something your greatest pleasure is to pass it on to the next generation. When they get up and they can thrill an audience what more can you ask. That’s it!”

The importance of Joy Brown Wiener’s life was on display the day she turned ninety.  Joy’s daughter and a niece contacted fifteen of her young students. They secretly rehearsed then surprised her with a birthday performance. Former students from Boston, Atlanta, Jacksonville and Colorado traveled to Memphis that day to celebrate the woman who taught them so much and meant so much.          

Today please join us in celebrating the life, the steadfastness, the perfect pitch of Joy Brown Wiener.

Ellen Robinson Rolfes


for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Ellen Robinson Rolfes

In the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s, a sickly girl, bed-ridden by serious asthma, made up stories about her dolls, a little woman and man and their little table and tiny cooking pots.

Years later, now a Junior League of Memphis leader working on the charity’s cookbook in the 1980s, she hears potential in not only the recipe ingredients but the richness of stories shared around the meal. From those domestic voices Ellen Robinson Rolfes launched a national consultancy in cookbook publishing and a career that has carried her into prominence as an entrepreneur, philanthropy strategist and innovator.

Ellen’s national seminar business in the late 1980’s taught more than 3,000 women how to publish a community cookbook, generating millions of dollars for their hometowns. Dr. Dorothy Height, the legendary activist and leader of the National Council of Negro Women, became her mentor after they met around cookbook projects in the 1990’s including The Black Family Reunion and Mother Africa’s Table. Deeply inspired by Dr. Height, Ellen’s philanthropic projects would be characterized by intentional inclusion of women from diverse geographic, economic and racial backgrounds who come together to embrace a shared vision.

As the Internet provided instant access to any recipe, Ellen pivoted her fundraising talents toward women and “the feminine face of philanthropy.” Ellen reinvented herself as a philanthropy strategist who has worked with academic and healthcare institutions, nonprofits in social service and the arts.

In 2000, she brought the idea of a women’s council to the female vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi in Oxford where, Ellen said, “the culture was male dominated and its philanthropy silently patriarchal. There was no awareness that 54% of the wealth in the country had quietly shifted to women. . . They were losing half their money.”

Ellen contacted Ole Miss alumnae Edith Kelly-Green (who happens to be the 1993 Woman of Achievement for Initiative) to chair the new council. And so it began.

At first some of the folks at the university called the 25 women “the Council of Ole Misses.”

Not anymore. The Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy is responsible for 187 scholarships and an endowment of $23 million so far. On its 20th anniversary the Council established the Ellen Rolfes Rose Garden Endowment to support their leadership-mentorship program. Kelly-Green said, “(I)t was Ellen who had the vision…It was her enthusiasm and energy that made the other 23 inaugural board members commit to an idea that has made such an impact on this university.”

In 2010 the Memphis Symphony was greeting its first female music director Mei Ann Chen. As a consultant to the Symphony, Ellen could see that the orchestra needed new faces and new money. She contacted three well-known philanthropic women and asked each for $1,000. With that $3,000 she founded the Mei Ann Circle of Friends, a women’s philanthropy initiative that fosters intentional inclusion as well as a Musician Fellowship Program for Latinx and African American graduate students.

The Circle of Friends continued after Mei Ann Chen departed Memphis and today has 100 active members, 45% of them women of color. The Circle has brought more than $1 million to the operations budget as well as first time subscribers and patrons who had never been to a classical concert. Just last year Ellen pushed the Circle to establish the annual Eddy Award to salute a community member who has made a transformative contribution to enhancing cultural awareness in the arts through music.

Ellen is a founding member and past president of the Society of Entrepreneurs and former executive director of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis and Memphis’s ACE Awareness Foundation. As a book packager she produced 17 titles in trade publishing identified as “An Ellen Rolfes Book.” As a consultant with Baptist Women’s Hospital, she led a partnership with the Women’s Foundation in creating the Hall of Legends, a permanent exhibition of the Foundation’s Legends Awards art collection celebrating extraordinary local women.

Women of Achievement has rarely had an honoree as deserving of our plate as Ellen Rolfes whose early work unearthed the power of the plate, the dinner table, the meal and the ways those have historically given voice to women’s creativity and contributions to community life. Ellen’s initiative has made her life endlessly interesting and her community forever better.

Madame Florence Cole Talbert McCleave


for women whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Madame Florence Cole Talbert McCleave

Florence Cole Talbert McCleave seemed to have all the ingredients for a successful career in opera: talent, desire, training, and critical acclaim. And while she briefly achieved her dream on European opera stages, she was unable to find the roles she sought in the United States as an African American soprano in the 1920’s. Instead of a career in opera, she spent the latter part of her life teaching and spreading her love of music in Memphis for three decades.

Born in Detroit in 1890, Florence was surrounded by music. A grandmother and both her parents were singers, and her mother had traveled with the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers. Florence studied piano from age 6, adding voice lessons after her family moved to Los Angeles. She was captivated by opera after she attended a performance of Aida as a teenager. She later told an interviewer: “I was impressed by the opera as nothing had ever moved me before. I sat breathlessly watching the artists, and as the opera progressed, a desire (an impossible desire, so it seemed at the time) took possession of me. I wanted to sing the title role in Aida. I could see myself thrilling large audiences as I myself was thrilled.”

Focused on that goal, Florence graduated from the University of Southern California School of Music, spent a year traveling with Hahn’s Jubilee Singers, and was married briefly to musician Wendell Talbert. She then settled in Chicago and enrolled at the Chicago Musical College where she was the first black commencement soloist in 1916. She continued her training while giving concerts in U.S. cities until she traveled to Europe in 1925 for additional training. Her breakthrough performance was her debut in Cosenza, Italy in March 1927 in the title role of Aida. She is believed be the first black woman to perform that role with a professional European opera company. For several months, she lived her dream on stages in Paris, Rome, and other European cities, earning praise such as “her voice of velvety quality was such as to overwhelm the audience.”

Florence returned to the United States that fall, resuming her concert career in African American communities but never breaking into opera despite being known as “The First Lady of Grand Opera” by the National Negro Opera Guild. She eventually taught voice and music at several historically black colleges in the South. She moved to Memphis in 1930 after marrying Memphian Dr. Benjamin F. McCleave, whom she met while touring.

It was here that Madame McCleave built her second musical legacy, one of teaching, and community involvement. She was an organizer of the Memphis Music Association, a branch of the National Association of Negro Musicians. She brought renowned artists including Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, and George Shirley to sing in the African American community while The Met was touring to Memphis in a white-only venue. Her students included Stax great Carla Thomas and Manassas High graduate Vera Little, a mezzo-soprano who became the first African American singer to perform for a pope in 1959.

Madame McCleave died in 1961 at the age of 70. Another chapter began 50 years later when the new Opera Memphis general director Ned Canty visited the Pink Palace museum and spotted Madame McCleave’s story in an exhibit. Canty wondered why he had never heard of her. He described the experience as a “wakeup moment” that led Opera Memphis to collaborate with community partners in creating The McCleave Project – an effort to celebrate Madame McCleave more broadly in Memphis and to deepen the opera company’s engagement with issues of equity and diversity in opera. The McCleave Project began in 2017 with performances by African American singers in several primarily African American neighborhoods. A year later the project launched fellowships for young directors and conductors of color. Two McCleave Fellowships were awarded in 2018 and 2019 before the program was put on hold during the pandemic. Madame McCleave was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2019.

Opera Memphis is preparing to resume the fellowships, and the fruits of the program will be visible in May when the first McCleave Fellow — Dennis Whitehead Darling – returns to direct La Boheme. Fittingly, the production will not be set in the traditional setting of Paris in the late 1830’s. Instead it will be Memphis in 1915 and inspired by artists working on Beale Street at the time.

Madame McCleave died on April 3, 1961.

Phillis Lewis


for a woman who solved a glaring problem despite
widespread inertia, apathy or ignorance around her:

Phillis Lewis

When she was six or seven years old, Phillis Lewis saw her mother repeatedly injured by her mother’s boyfriend. Phillis was herself hurt, by the same man. That childhood trauma led Phillis, a loud and proud bi-sexual woman, to dedicate her life to helping other victims of domestic violence and started her on the path to founding Love Doesn’t Hurt, an organization that provides support and assistance to members of the LGBTQ+ community who are victims of crime and sexual violence. 

In 2009 while completing a degree at the University of Memphis, Phillis interned with and was later hired by the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office to assist victims of domestic violence (DV) in working through the system, for justice and recovery.

Recovery and prevention each require many services not available from the DA’s office. Referrals are made to social service providers for help with related needs such as housing, transportation, and food.

In 2011 Phillis was assigned the case of a lesbian who was being abused by her wife. Phillis provided the victim with the resource list and was in regular contact to check progress and discuss problems. Then two weeks passed and Phillis heard nothing. She called and was appalled to discover that one of the agencies on the contact list was hostile and shaming toward the victim. Phillis wondered how many others in the LGBTQ+ community had similar experiences, with people who were supposed to provide help.

Determined to find out, on her lunchtime she began calling the listed providers and presenting herself as an LGBTQ+ victim. Phillis says 30% of the providers responded unacceptably. Phillis went to her supervisor who immediately removed those organizations from the list.

LGBTQ+ people are four times more likely to be victims of violent crime (including DV) and the abuser is often someone the victim knows well or with whom they have an intimate relationship. Phillis realized that there was no local program designed to provide support or to educate local agencies about the needs of this community. More was needed.  And in 2011 Phillis came up with the idea for Love Doesn’t Hurt.  

In data provided by local law enforcement she learned that in 2011 a total of 7,200 DV cases were reported. Of those only 213 were same sex relationships. The number seemed too low. She recognized the long-standing distrust of law enforcement. Furthermore, if law enforcement was called in at all, they could only report what they were told, not what they observed. Phillis wondered how to bridge this gap.

Her answer:  Convene an awareness event to increase cultural sensitivity. The first event included the Memphis Center for Reproductive Health, Hope House, Out Memphis, the Shelby County Sherrif’s Office and the Memphis Police Department.  It was all about building trust and Phillis worked tirelessly. 

In 2019, Love Doesn’t Hurt obtained a 501-C3 to become a stand-alone agency.  In 2021 Phillis took the plunge, quit her job, cashed in her retirement account and invested in educating herself about managing non-profits. She now works for Love Doesn’t Hurt, determined to dismantle hate and reduce violence while providing unwavering support and create a safe haven for victims in the LGBTQ community.

Over the years she has never wavered in her passion for this work. Energetic and enthusiastic, Phillis has led the Memphis Shelby County Domestic & Sexual Violence Council, chairs the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic & Sexual Violence Inclusivity Committee, served as the LGBTQ+ representative for the Convening Council for the Memphis/Shelby County Homeless Consortium and is a leader in the DV task force led by the University of Memphis. 

Since that first event, reporting of DV in the LGBTQ community has increased by 256%. Phillis says this is not totally because of increased violence but because of increased awareness on the part of law enforcement and social services agencies and because victims now feel they can safely report crime and seek help. 

Today, March 3rd, 2024, would have been her mother’s 67th birthday. Today we honor Phillis Lewis, Gloria Fisher’s determined daughter.

Jennifer Murry-Rodley and Vanessa Rodley

Jennifer Murry-Rodley (left) and Vanessa Rodley (right)

for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Jennifer Murry-Rodley and Vanessa Rodley

Who doesn’t love a parade? Vanessa Rodley and wife Jennifer Murry-Rodley certainly do! They watched from the sidewalk at their first Pride parade in Memphis. Then in 2010 they became volunteers. In 2023, with Vanessa as President of Memphis Pride and Jennifer as Vice-President, Pride events reached over 63,000 people, the largest attendance ever in the Mid-South.

This year’s Women of Achievement Courage Award is not for putting on a parade but rather for taking part in an uphill struggle, to be fought on two fronts, against the well-organized forces of hate and intolerance.

Ask yourself this question: Does it require more courage to express who you are on a public street, knowing that in the crowd are those who threaten you and everyone like you? Or to be a witness, to stand up for your right to speak freely and openly? We say both take equal amounts of courage.

First, their story: Vanessa, California born and raised, met Jennifer, a native Memphian, in 2001 when Vanessa moved to Memphis with a friend. In early 2002, they became a committed couple, a date they still celebrate. They soon moved to Los Angeles to be near Vanessa’s family. In 2007 they returned to Memphis, where they now live in Cooper-Young, near Jennifer’s childhood home.

Did I mention they were married in 2014?

They have much in common. Both grew up in homes where advocacy was expected. Vanessa’s grandparents, especially her grandmother, raised funds and sat on community boards. In Cooper-Young, Jennifer’s two moms were active in the PTA and with Girl Scouts.

Jennifer and Vanessa became active in Friends of George’s, a theatre company named after the beloved Memphis drag bar. As Mid-South Pride volunteers, they raised money and good will by serving plates of food and jello shots at local bars such as Dru’s and the Pumping Station.

When Pride established a board in 2012, Vanessa became Vice-President and Jennifer became Secretary. Pride, and the parade, thrived, But being out in Memphis attracts attention. From the beginning, threats were always in the air, but when the parade moved Downtown and attendance tripled, the threats escalated. Both remember 2019 especially; The Proud Boys, The Black Israelites, The Aryan Nation, and others openly hostile to the LGBTQ+ community. The Club Q mass shootings in Colorado in 2022 brought a whole new level of fear and anxiety.

Here’s what you don’t see but is behind the scenes at a Pride parade:

Security teams on high alert before and after Pride. Volunteers walking through the parade route, discussing what to do in worst-case scenarios. Check-ins throughout the day to make sure everyone is okay.

But what do you do when those who hate and fear you don’t hide in the shadows of the internet or anonymously in a crowd? In early 2023, Governor Bill Lee signed into law the Adult Entertainment Act as passed by the Tennessee Legislature. The intent was to make drag shows illegal. Friends of George’s (FOG) challenged the law and Jennifer became the face of that challenge.

Those defending the law deposed one witness: Jennifer. She recalls the questions were not about how she viewed her rights under the Constitution, but were crudely suggestive, invasive questions about her sexuality. She recalls the advice she was given; take a deep breath and a sip of water then be a witness for what is right.

Trump-appointed Federal Judge Thomas Parker overturned the law, saying: “Freedom of speech is not just about speech. It is also about the right to debate with fellow citizens on self-government, to discover the truth in the marketplace of ideas, to express one’s identity, and to realize self-fulfillment in a free society.” 

But with the victory came national attention; from Rolling Stone Magazine, TMZ, The New York Times, MSNBC. And there was a price. Jennifer was celebrated for leading the fight. And targeted, through social media. Their home address was revealed. Threatening letters arrived. Cameras were installed and for a time security vehicles were parked in the driveway. Yet they continued.

Besides their commitment to the LGBTQ community, both women have day jobs. Vanessa is operations manager for New Urban Media while Jennifer is a neo-natal ICU nurse at Baptist Women’s Hospital. They hope, In the future, to have children.

Early in their lives, Vanessa and Jennifer each learned to speak up. They have faced threats made in person, by mail and on social media. Yet they continue to courageously speak out for fairness, justice and human rights. And for that we honor them.

Amy Moses and Sara Lynn Johnson Fultz

Amy Moses (left) and Sara Lynn Johnson Fultz (right)

for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Amy Moses and Sara Lynn Johnson Fultz

Menstrual cramps. Painful intercourse. Bowel incontinence. Urinary leakage. Vaginal dryness.

These are “below the belt” subjects that we just don’t talk about but that have a tremendous impact on our quality of life, from adolescence through menopause.

Freeing women from the misery, embarrassment and limitations of these problems is the vision and work of physical therapists Amy Moses and Sara Lynn Johnson Fultz. As co-founders and co-owners of MOJO Pelvic Health, as therapists, educators and advocates, they share a vision of a world where women can be pain-free and comfortable in their bodies throughout their lives.

Deeply sensitive to the stigma around issues involving the pelvic floor, they see that when women have issues that impact this part of their body, it affects their confidence, their independence, their dignity. They knew they had to create a safe space for patients to be seen, heard and understood.

Both women grew up in Mississippi and wandered far before a shared passion for lifelong women’s healthcare took hold. Sara Lynn spent several adventurous years in Alaska and returned to Memphis in 2010 where she saw in her practice dramatic relief from specialized physical therapy.

“I was treating someone who had bowel incontinence, a younger mother with four or five children. But she couldn’t go to any birthday party of her child for fear of something happening,” Sara Lynn said. “She came in and was crying because she had [finally] been able to go to a birthday party. Physical therapy makes a difference but this type impacts women in a way I had never experienced before.”

Similarly Amy, who traveled to Seattle for her residency, saw with her patients how imbalances in the pelvic floor impact literally every other part of the body. She also personally had fertility and pelvic floor issues that were resolved with pelvic PT, inspiring her to spend the rest of her life doing the same for others.

Sara Lynn and Amy met 10 years ago this year and almost joined up then but instead continued their independent pelvic health care work in the Memphis area. Five years later, in 2018, each on maternity leave with three-month-old babies, they met to talk and the vision of MOJO Pelvic Health was born. It opened in February 2019 and is now one of the largest woman-owned and operated pelvic health therapy groups in Tennessee and Mississippi. The practice began only with Amy and Sara Lynn and in five years has trained more than 30 physical therapists. MOJO has four core locations open to patients as well as therapists in six physicians’ offices.

They see how for centuries these problems have been blamed on aging, on being female, on having children. Menstrual periods shouldn’t be painful yet they are for many when issues in the pelvic floor could be the cause and could be addressed. Women are told to ignore their pain or cope with the difficulty and carry on.

“If this was any other part of the body,” Amy said, “this would be treated (likely by a PT!) with the goal of figuring out the why and solutions to resolve it. We should receive care even in our teen years or as children dealing with bladder issues or bowel issues so that this doesn’t become a lifelong issue.”

They spend lots of time helping patients realize that their issues can and should be addressed, that they are worth this care and do not have to just live with it because mom, grandmother or their aunts had the same thing and “made do.”

Awareness is urgently needed among aging women. The top two reasons women end up in nursing homes are urinary incontinence and bowel incontinence. Amy said, “Management of these issues causes us to lose independence, the comfort of our home, and impacts our caregivers and family members. This is devastating especially when care is available and should be offered as first line of treatment.”

Much more attention is needed about pelvic health in medical training. Amy and Sara Lynn both teach pelvic health curriculum – Amy at her alma mater, The University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson and Sara Lynn at hers, UTHSC in Memphis. They regularly welcome residents, nurses and physicians to their clinics to learn.

They are eager to talk about the benefits of pelvic health and therapy anytime, anywhere. They are working now on programs to increase accessibility for children and “pelvises with a penis,” Sara Lynn said.

Access to healthcare that restores comfort, dignity and independence to women and girls, across their lifespan, is the vision and work of Amy Moses and Sara Lynn Johnson Fultz, our 2024 Women of Achievement for Vision.