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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, 2 comments

“At the time of her death, Miss Goodell was in debt to me in the sum of $50.”

“At the time of her death, Miss Goodell was in debt to me in the sum of $50.”

Kate Kane, January 1881

When Lavinia Goodell drafted her will in July of 1879, she no doubt believed that her estate would be divided exactly as she specified, and she probably did not expect anyone to file spurious claims. Unfortunately, her will was challenged and her friend and fellow Janesville attorney, Kate Kane, filed a claim against the estate.

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Posted by admin in Death/estate, 0 comments

“In evening, drafted my will.”

“In evening, drafted my will.”

Lavinia Goodell, July 4, 1879

In 1879, approximately nine months before she died, Lavinia Goodell spent part of the July 4th holiday drafting her will.

There is no indication that she had previous wills. Both of Lavinia’s parents had died in 1878. She had drafted their wills. Upon their deaths, Lavinia inherited a goodly sum of money and, being a meticulous planner, she no doubt wanted to make sure that when she died, her estate would be distributed precisely the way she wanted. (Read the entire will here.)

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Posted by admin in Death/estate, 1 comment

“She would love to live—very much—she thought of so many things she should love to do”

“She would love to live—very much—she thought of so many things she should love to do”

With ministers, social reformers, and politicians often stopping by the Goodell house, Lavinia certainly grew up in an intellectually stimulating environment. That may partly explain her precociousness. On the downside, little Lavinia did not spend much time playing with children her own age. Her parents were old enough to be her grandparents. Her sole sibling, Maria, was 12 years her senior. And frequent illness kept her from attending the district school. All that changed when cousin Amanda came to stay with the Goodells. To Maria, the visit was so transformative that she devoted a short chapter to Amanda in Lavinia’s biography.

Faux Lavinia, maybe Amanda Goodell?
Amanda Goodell?

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Posted by admin in Growing Up: 1839-1859, Young Adulthood: 1860-1871, 1 comment

“Mrs. Guernsey is a … woman’s rights woman.”

“Mrs. Guernsey is a … woman’s rights woman.”

Lavinia Goodell, August 18, 1873

In addition to her good friend Mrs. Beale, Lavinia Goodell counted on Mrs. Orrin Guernsey to advance the cause of temperance and, to a lesser extent, women’s rights.

(Stock photo. Does not depict the members of Janesville’s LTU)

Sarah Cooley Guernsey was born in New Hampshire in 1821. At age seventeen she married Orrin Guernsey and in 1843 the couple and their children moved to Janesville. The Guernseys featured prominently in Janesville society. Mr. Guernsey was  twice elected to the Wisconsin legislature. In the 1860s, President Johnson appointed him a member of a commission that concluded treaties with the Sioux Indians. He served on the Janesville city council; was a member of the board of the directors for the institution for the blind; served on the board of the Madison Mutual Insurance Company; and was a founder of the Rock County Agricultural Society.

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Posted by admin in Temperance, 0 comments

“Am glad Bennett is to take the case with me.”

“Am glad Bennett is to take the case with me.”

Lavinia Goodell, January 27, 1875

The case that spawned Lavinia Goodell’s epic battle for admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court was Tyler v. Burrington. In November of 1874, Lavinia was retained by Lydia Burrington, a doctor’s widow who had been sued by a young woman whom the Burringtons had taken in ten years earlier and treated as a family member. The young woman claimed she had been treated as a servant and that Dr. Burrington had told her he intended to pay her for her work. Lavinia could tell that the case was likely to be a tough one, and she had only been practicing law for five months, so she looked for someone who would assist her. After Pliny Norcross turned her down, she turned to John R. Bennett.

Bennett initially said he could not help Lavinia either, but by January 1875, to Lavinia’s relief, he changed his mind.

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Posted by admin in Colleagues, 0 comments

“Mr. Sloan read my argument. Judge Ryan mad as a bull.”

“Mr. Sloan read my argument. Judge Ryan mad as a bull.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 14, 1875

When Lavinia Goodell applied for admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court bar in 1875, she was not allowed to present the motion to the court herself. Instead, her argument was read by Assistant Attorney General I.C. Sloan. Along with J.B. Cassoday, Sloan, a former Janesville attorney, was one of the people who made Lavinia’s admission to the Supreme Court bar possible.

I. C. Sloan
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Posted by admin in Legal practice, 0 comments

“Lawyer Cassoday calls me his sister in law.”

“Lawyer Cassoday calls me his sister in law.”

Lavinia Goodell, June 30, 1874

One of Lavinia Goodell’s staunchest allies during her legal career was John Bolivar Cassoday. He offered her advice on cases, allowed her to use his extensive law library, and as a member of the Wisconsin legislature, introduced the bill that decreed that no person could be denied a license to practice law on account of sex, thus allowing Lavinia to be admitted to practice before the Wisconsin Supreme Court

John Bolivar Cassoday
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Posted by admin in Legal practice, Proposed legislation, 0 comments

“Am glad you like the photo.”

“Am glad you like the photo.”

Lavinia Goodell, January 9, 1871

Lavinia Goodell mentioned having her photograph taken on several occasions. One of her sittings occurred the week before Christmas in 1870. At the time, Lavinia was living with her aunt and uncle in Brooklyn and working at Harper’s Bazar in lower Manhattan. She wrote to her parents on December 18 that she was enclosing $3.00 for them to frame a photograph which she was going to send them for their Christmas present. She said, “Don’t know how good it will be.” Two days later she wrote her parents again, saying “The photograph is done & I have ordered it mailed to you today, from the photographer, as they can pack it best.”

Although we have no have no way to know for certain, because the photograph bears no identifying mark, we think there is a good chance that this is the photo:

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