Learn about Lavinia, follow this blog!

Learn about Lavinia, follow this blog!

The Private Life and Public Trials of Wisconsin’s First Woman Lawyer is a digital biography of Lavinia Goodell. Like a 19th-century novel published in serial format, we are blogging about Lavinia’s personal life and her pioneering work as one of the nation’s early women lawyers.  Explore the Table of Contents in the left side bar. Continue reading →

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Introducing Lavinia Goodell’s digital biography

Introducing Lavinia Goodell’s digital biography

The first woman lawyer admitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court had to fight for that status, overcoming opposition from the most powerful legal figure in the state. Lavinia Goodell (1839-1880) was also one of the first female trial lawyers in the United States, a nationally-respected writer, a Vice President of the Association for the Advancement of Woman, a candidate for Janesville City Attorney, a successful lobbyist, a jail reformer, and a temperance advocate. Yet she is undeservedly obscure. Another woman’s likeness adorns her spot in books, on the web, and at the Rock County Courthouse. Lavinia Goodell: The Private Life and Public Trials of Wisconsin’s First Woman Lawyer aims to secure her rightful place in history.

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A Case of Mistaken Identity: Meet the Real Lavinia Goodell

A Case of Mistaken Identity: Meet the Real Lavinia Goodell

Historical research is a lot like detective work. You follow the facts wherever they might lead. Sometimes they lead down dark alleys; many times they lead to dead ends. But once in a while they lead to a never before seen vista that is so breathtaking that you have to pinch yourself. Case in point: the moment you discover that the widely disseminated photo of Lavinia Goodell isn’t her at all. How could that be possible? Here’s how:

The faux Lavinia and the real Lavinia
The Faux Lavinia (left) and the Real Lavinia (right).

When Lavinia died in 1880, she left her personal belongings to her sister, Maria Frost. On Maria’s death in 1899, her son, William Goodell Frost, whom Lavinia affectionately called Willie, was the president of Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. Willie placed the Goodell family papers, which included Lavinia’s diaries and correspondence, in the Berea College library. The papers apparently did not include a photograph of Lavinia, although her letters recount that she had her picture taken on several occasions. Lavinia may well never have had a public face were it not for the fact that in 1959 two writers were simultaneously doing research for dueling biographies, neither of which was ever published.

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“In all probability I must teach, that is all a woman can do.”

“In all probability I must teach, that is all a woman can do.”

In 1858, long before any woman was admitted to practice law in the United States, 18-year-old Lavinia Goodell contemplated her future. She wrote to her sister, Maria:

I expect to graduate next summer . . . and I must have a life plan. I don’t believe in living to get married, if that comes along in the natural course of events—very well, but to make it virtually my end aim, to square all my plans to it, and study and learn for no other purpose, does not suit my ideas.

I think the study of law would be pleasant, but the practice attendant with many embarrassments. Indeed, I fear it would be utterly impractical. [O]ur folks would not hear of my going to college; I should dare not mention it. Mamma is very much afraid that I shall be identified with the “women’s rights movement.” Mary advises me to try writing for the press, but you know I have so much to learn about everything, to be conversant with literature, to perfect my style, to arrange my ideas and to know my latitude and longitude on the ocean of thought that it would be a long, long time before I could enter boldly upon it as a profession.

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