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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

History is a story with many voices that we tell together

History is a story with many voices that we tell together.

Photograph of Lavinia Goodell
Lavinia Goodell

The Wisconsin Historical Society was founded in 1846, two years before Wisconsin became a state. Lavinia Goodell, who in 1874 would go on to become Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer,  was then a seven year old girl living in New York state.

In 2021, the Wisconsin Historical Society is celebrating its 175th anniversary of collecting, preserving, and sharing the state’s rich history. The Society is recognizing Wisconsin visionaries, changemakers, and storytellers. We are deeply honored that Lavinia Goodell is among the outstanding Wisconsinites singled out for recognition. https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/175.

In the words of the Wisconsin Historical Society, we look to the past to inspire the future, and we study the stories of those who came before us to define who we are today. Congratulations to the WHS on its 175th anniversary. Long may it continue to share stories of our state’s past and inspire new generations to build a better tomorrow.

Posted by admin in Press about Lavinia's biography, 0 comments

“Judge Conger will stand by me.”

“Judge Conger will stand by me.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 20, 1875

When Lavinia Goodell became the first Wisconsin woman admitted to practice law in June of 1874, she could credit her accomplishment on her studiousness and tenacity, but if Circuit Judge Harmon S. Conger had refused to allow her to take the examination given to aspiring attorneys, Lavinia’s battle to become a member of the bar may have been far more protracted. Despite some initial uncertainty as to whether women were eligible to become lawyers, Judge Conger found no statute or rule explicitly prohibiting women’s admission to the bar, and he offered Lavinia the same chance to prove herself afforded to male candidates. Although the judge held conservative ideas on many topics, he treated Lavinia with equanimity and became her mentor and friend.

Photograph of Judge Harmon Conger
Judge Harmon S. Conger
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Posted by admin in Legal practice, 1 comment

Lavinia springs prisoner to speak at book club

Lavinia springs prisoner to speak at book club

That easily could have been the headline of the June 2, 1877, Janesville Gazette. Max St. Bar was an inmate at the Rock County Jail and one of many students in Lavinia’s jail school. She immediately noticed his intelligence and elocution. In her relentless effort to prove that prisoners often have good qualities and are worthy of mentoring, Lavinia persuaded the sheriff to release St. Bar for a bit so that he could recite poetry to her Mutual Improvement Club.

Lavinia’s article about Max St. Bar

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Posted by admin in Jail school/prison reform, 1 comment

“Went to Milwaukee to try Dr. Hanson’s Turkish baths.”

“Went to Milwaukee to try Dr. Hanson’s Turkish baths.”

Lavinia Goodell, January 21, 1880

In mid-January of 1880, ten weeks before her death from ovarian cancer, Lavinia Goodell travelled to Milwaukee to seek treatment at a Turkish bath establishment.

Picture of Milwaukee's turkish baths

The Milwaukee Thermo Therapea was located at 415 Sycamore Street, a few blocks west of the Milwaukee River. (Sycamore Street is now known as Michigan Street.)

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Posted by admin in Illness, 0 comments

“Mrs. Beale is very neighborly. Comes in nearly every day.”

“Mrs. Beale is very neighborly. Comes in nearly every day.”

Lavinia Goodell, June 27, 1873

Lavinia Goodell’s best friend and closest confidant during her years in Janesville, Wisconsin was Mrs. D.A. (Dorcas Amanda) Beale. Lavinia’s diaries for the years 1873 through 1879 mention Mrs. Beale 392 times.

Mrs. Beale was born in Maine in either 1825 or 1827. (There is a two year variation in her age between the 1860 and 1870 census.) She came west at a young age, taught school in Chicago, and married John Beale in Beloit in 1857. John was a hatter who had a store on Milwaukee Street in Janesville, next door to the building where Lavinia set up her law office in 1874. John Beale died unexpectedly while on a trip to Hartford, Connecticut in 1863. He was 39 years old.

In May of 1873 Lavinia and her parents leased one half of a “double house” on South Academy Street in Janesville. Mrs. Beale lived a block away.

Mrs. D.A. Beale’s home, 302 South Academy Street, Janesville, Wis.
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“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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“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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