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We are delighted to illuminate the important work of Lavinia Goodell. This blog shares significant moments in Lavinia’s life and excerpts from her personal papers. You may browse the posts or use the Table of Contents to find posts that interest you. Please subscribe and help spread the word about Wisconsin's first woman lawyer.

This website is a wonderful tribute to Lavinia Goodell

This website is a wonderful tribute to Lavinia Goodell

Former Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court Shirley Abrahamson

“In the 1870’s Lavinia Goodell became the first woman admitted to the Wisconsin state bar and then fought an epic battle for the right to practice before that state’s highest court. One century later I was sworn in as Wisconsin’s first woman Supreme Court Justice. Throughout my career in the law I worked hard to open doors for others, just as Lavinia opened the doors to the courtroom where I proudly sat for more than four decades, and presided as Chief Justice for more than 18 years. Lavinia resides in the pantheon of Wisconsin heroes. This website is a wonderful and loving tribute to this remarkable person. I urge everyone to scroll through these pages and find inspiration. Forward!”Former Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson, March 2, 2020

Posted by admin in Press about Lavinia's biography, Wisconsin Supreme Court battles, 1 comment

“Dear old Beecher! There’s nobody like him!”

“Dear old Beecher! There’s nobody like him!”

Lavinia Goodell, August 30, 1874

Henry Ward Beecher was one of the most famous men of the nineteenth century. Born in Connecticut in 1813, he was a Congregationalist preacher, a staunch abolitionist, and a supporter of women’s suffrage and temperance. In the early days of the Civil War, Beecher preached anti-slavery sermons from his Brooklyn pulpit. On one occasion a rumor spread that a mob would attack his church, and 200 Metropolitan police officers were dispatched to quell any disturbance that might arise. Fortunately their services were not needed.

Photo of Henry Ward Beecher
Henry Ward Beecher

Lavinia Goodell’s family held similar political and social views, so it is not surprising that they became acquainted with Beecher when the Goodells were living in New York. Lavinia’s diaries and letters contain many references to Beecher, and reading Beecher’s sermons was a weekly tradition for the Goodells.

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Posted by admin in Religion, 1 comment

“Suppose I could become Mrs. ‘M.D.’ if I chose. Don’t choose.”

“Suppose I could become Mrs. ‘M.D.’ if I chose. Don’t choose.”

Lavinia Goodell, January 11, 1868

In the fall of 1867, Lavinia Goodell began a new job at the newly minted Harper’s Bazar magazine. (Read more about her experiences here and here.) She was living in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn with Aunt Mira and Uncle John Hill. According to her surviving correspondence, by the end of that year Lavinia was being courted by a local physician named Dr. Saxton.

The first mention of the suitor appears in a December 21, 1867 Lavinia received from her cousin Sarah Thomas. Lavinia must have mentioned the doctor in a previous letter because Sarah inquired,” Is Dr. Saxton a widower? Do you ever think of ‘the mixture’ in connection with him?” A week later, Sarah wrote again, “I think it looks rather suspicious about Dr. Saxton. You know you are fond of old gentlemen.”

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Posted by admin in Harper's Bazar years, 0 comments

“Mrs. Bascom and her husband sympathized warmly with my effort to be admitted.”

“Mrs. Bascom and her husband sympathized warmly with my effort to be admitted.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 20, 1875

Emma Bascom

Throughout her life, Lavinia Goodell cultivated a network of prominent people who championed her efforts to be admitted to the Wisconsin bar and supported, at least to some degree, her other varied causes, such as temperance and suffrage. While Lavinia welcomed their patronage, she sometimes thought that other women, particularly those married to distinguished and prosperous men, could have done much more to advance the cause of women’s rights but hung back due to concern of appearing “unwomanly.” At times this led to Lavinia feeling enormous frustration with her benefactors. Lavinia shared one such complicated relationship with Emma Bascom, the wife of the University of Wisconsin’s president.

Emma Curtiss Bascom was born in Massachusetts in 1828. She married her husband John, a professor at Williams College, in 1856. The Bascoms moved to Madison, Wisconsin in 1874 when John assumed the leadership of the University.

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Posted by admin in Colleagues, 0 comments

“Dr. Clara Normington has concluded to enter upon the practice of medicine in this city.”

“Dr. Clara Normington has concluded to enter upon the practice of medicine in this city.”

Janesville Gazette, March 25, 1878

Janesville, Wisconsin in the late 1870s not only had three women lawyers (Lavinia Goodell, Kate Kane,  and Angie King), it also had a woman physician. According to the 1880 census, Dr. Clara Normington was born in England in 1845. (After her 1882 marriage she may have later shaved a few years off her actual age since the 1900 census says she was born in 1854, and her gravestone has that same notation.)  She graduated from the Woman’s Hospital Medical College in Chicago in 1878 and set up practice in Tallman’s block in Janesville, where Lavinia had her law office. The Janesville Gazette took note of her arrival and predicted,  “being thoroughly educated, she will doubtless find here a successful field of labor.”

1878 advertisement for Dr. Clara Normington's practice
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Posted by admin in Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, Friends, 0 comments

“I have been up to the Central Park. It is a beautiful place.”

“I have been up to the Central Park. It is a beautiful place.”

Lavinia Goodell, July 30, 1863

When warm sunny days arrive, people enjoy visiting their local parks. Lavinia Goodell was no different. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Lavinia, who was living in Brooklyn, visited New York’s Central Park for the first time with her parents and was thoroughly enchanted with it.

She wrote to her sister, Maria:

I have been up to the Central Park twice since I wrote you. Last week, Wednesday, Father and mother and I went – just us three. We started in the morning, carried a lunch, and staid all day.

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Posted by admin in Principia years, 0 comments

“I have seen Niagara!”

“I have seen Niagara!”

Lavinia Goodell, September 20, 1861

Although people tend to think of Lavinia Goodell as a very serious woman who devoted her life to working to advance causes such as women’s rights, temperance, and prison reform, she also had a much lighter side that is not well known. Lavinia had a delightful sense of humor, and she also had a sense of adventure. She loved to experience new things. She read the popular books of the time. She kept up on current fashion trends. And she enjoyed travelling and seeing new places. She particularly relished seeing the country’s natural wonders. In the autumn of 1861 she had the unexpected pleasure of seeing one of the nation’s most spectacular attractions: Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls, c. 1860. (Stock photo. Does not depict Lavinia)
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Posted by admin in Principia years, 1 comment

“My only regret was that we didn’t take her there sooner.”

“My only regret was that we didn’t take her there sooner.”

Lavinia Goodell, June 19, 1878

In early July 1877, Lavinia Goodell committed her mother to the Wisconsin State Hospital for the Insane. The institution, now known as Mendota Mental Health Institute, is located on Lake Mendota, on the north side of Madison.

Lavinia’s July 3, 1877 diary entry read, “Went up to asylum and after various tribulations took leave of mother and started homeward.”

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Posted by admin in Family, 1 comment

“The boys tried to break out last night!”

“The boys tried to break out last night!”

Lavinia Goodell, November 6, 1877

In the late 1870s, Lavinia Goodell was a frequent visitor to the Rock County jail, which was located on the Rock River, down the hill from the courthouse.

Rock County jail, c. 1880

After Judge Conger appointed her to represent a number of criminal defendants, Lavinia came to the conclusion that with proper education and spiritual direction, many of the men could be reformed. Since no one else seemed interested in such a project, she undertook it herself.  She took a personal interest in the prisoners and called them her “boys.” (Read more about her jail school here.)

In late 1877 Lavinia visited the jail several times a week. On November 5 she trekked there through deep snow and then couldn’t get in because John Albright, the turnkey, was not there. She spent two hours waiting for him to come back but he did not return, so after speaking to her boys through a hole in the wall, she left in disgust.

That evening some of the prisoners attempted a jail break. Lavinia’s diary entry for the following day reported: “Went to jail where found great excitement. Boys tried to break out the night before and had attacked Albright. Sutton and Sullivan not among them. I went in and taught as usual.”

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Posted by admin in Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, Jail school/prison reform, 0 comments
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