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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

“Miss Lavinia Goodell & Miss Angie King have formed a partnership for the practice of law.”

“Miss Lavinia Goodell & Miss Angie King have formed a partnership for the practice of law.”

Janesville Gazette, February 1, 1879

Angie King kept busy during the 1870s by working in her brother’s bookstore and caring for her blind sister. At the same time, she studied law in the office of A.A. Jackson.  Along with Lavinia Goodell, she was also active in Janesville’s two literary societies, the Mutual Improvement Club and the Round Table. (Read more about the two clubs here.)

On January 10, 1879, Lavinia was present at the Rock County Courthouse when Angie and two men were examined for admission to the bar. While Lavinia found out that she passed her examination the same day it was given, Angie and the two male scholars had to wait three days to learn their fate. The Janesville Gazette reported, all three passed and “are now recognized as regular practicing attorneys.”

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Lavinia’s jail school

Lavinia’s jail school

“I had no idea that criminals were so interesting,” Lavinia Goodell told her sister, Maria. “I believe I could run [the Rock County] jail, so as to turn out every man better than he came in. Jails and prisons could just as well be made schools of virtue as vice if people chose to have it so, and would give a very little thought to the subject.” For the last four years of her life, while her elderly parents were failing and she was suffering a fatal illness, Lavinia poured herself into reforming criminals.

This is a December 5, 1877 Janesville Gazette article about the Row Boat, a paper written by prisoners who attended Lavinia’s jail school.

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“These high-minded, noble animals of the superior sex were willing to stoop to the dirtiest work”

“These high-minded, noble animals of the superior sex were willing to stoop to the dirtiest work”

The Revolution, May 8, 1869

Angie King’s unsuccessful 1869 battle to be appointed Janesville’s postmaster (after Janesville’s male Republican voters elected her to the position) garnered national media attention. The Revolution, the women’s rights newspaper founded by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, published this article in its May 8, 1869 issue. (The actual column may be seen here.)

A good deal is being said in the papers just now about Miss Angie King, and a struggle for the Janesville, Wis., post-office. It seems that Miss King applied for the position, and was backed by a majority of the citizens of the place, who wished her to occupy it. When she reached Washington she found half a dozen lazy, hungry men seeking for the place, and leaving no stone unturned to get it.

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“The contest for the post office is growing hotter every day.”

“The contest for the post office is growing hotter every day.”

Janesville Gazette, February 6, 1869

After Lavinia Goodell became Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer, she served as a mentor to other women looking to enter the legal profession. The life and career of Kate Kane, the second Wisconsin woman admitted to the bar, is chronicled here. The third woman admitted to practice law in Wisconsin was also from Janesville and enjoyed a close relationship with Lavinia.

Angie King

Angela Josephine King was born in Ohio in 1845. Her family moved to Janesville when she was an infant. In 1867 she graduated from the Janesville Ladies’ Seminary, which encouraged independence of thought in its young ladies in addition to stressing culture, refinement, and high moral character.

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“We are here to study literature.”

“We are here to study literature.”

Motto of the Round Table literary society, Janesville, Wisconsin

Lavinia Goodell’s diaries and letters tell us that she was a voracious reader. She read contemporary authors (Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe), classics (Shakespeare),  and scientific works (Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”) 1870s Janesville, Wisconsin was home to two literary societies, and, not surprisingly, Lavinia was active in both.

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Reclaiming criminals: “My remedies will either kill or cure!”

Reclaiming criminals: “My remedies will either kill or cure!”

Lavinia was quite taken with James Tolan, her client accused of stealing a $23 watch. “I never had the confidence of a criminal before,” she told her sister.  “It was a very interesting experience.” Poor Tolan, an inmate of the Rock County jail, was literally a captive audience. Lavinia visited him often and, in her words, “persecuted him nearly to death” with lectures, tracts and sermons. She declared: “my remedies on him will either kill or cure!” Lucky for Tolan, Lavinia’s courtroom zeal matched her determination as a reformer.

November 16, 1875 Janesville Gazette article about Lavinia’s defense of James Tolan

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“What shall we do with our criminals?”

“What shall we do with our criminals?”

In the fall of 1875, Judge Harmon Conger—the same judge who admitted Lavinia to the Rock County bar—changed the course of her legal career. She was sitting in her office drafting a client’s will when a sheriff popped in to announce that the judge had just appointed her to defend two criminals. One, James Tolan, was charged with stealing a watch from someone. The other, Harrison Cramer, had allegedly stolen spoons, jackknives, and a black silk belt from a store. The appointments surprised Lavinia.

A drunk tramp with a pocket watch.

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“Woman is man’s equal.”

“Woman is man’s equal.”

Declaration of Sentiments issued at Seneca Falls, New York, July 1848

“The equal right of Woman to social, civil and political equality, has always been to me like an axiom which it were as idle to dispute as to undertake to controvert the multiplication table.” – Lavinia Goodell, 1875

On July 19, 1848, the first woman’s rights convention held in the United States convened in Seneca Falls, New York.

The event was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a distant cousin of Lavinia Goodell’s mother, and Lucretia Mott. The women had met at an anti-slavery convention in London eight years earlier. Stanton and Mott were barred from the convention floor because of their gender, and their indignation formed the seeds of the women’s rights movement in America.

Seneca Falls Convention, 1848
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