“The superior physical attractiveness of the girl won her the verdict”

“The superior physical attractiveness of the girl won her the verdict”

Dr. and Mrs. Lydia Burrington, a childless couple, took Sarah Tyler, a destitute orphan, into their home and treated her like a daughter.  When Dr. Burrington died 10 years later, Sarah sued his estate for $1,100 in “wages.” Mrs. Burrington, executrix of the estate, hired Lavinia Goodell as defense counsel for the trial to an all-male jury.  For Lavinia, this case proved why it was important to have women on juries.

Editorial cartoon: Women are too sentimental for jury duty. - Anti-suffrage argument
“Women are too sentimental for jury duty.” – Anti-suffrage argument

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Lavinia Goodell put her faith into practice in her daily life

Lavinia Goodell put her faith into practice in her daily life

Congratulations to the First Congregational United Church of Christ and Rev. Tanya Sadagopan on the church’s 175th anniversary. The Congregational Church played a robust role in Lavinia Goodell’s life in Janesville. She would be thrilled to know that her church is still serving the Janesville community and would be even more pleased to know that its pastor is a woman. 

Janesville Congregational Church, c. 1870s
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“People told him he was going to be beaten by a woman, and he got his blood up, and that raised my grit.”

“People told him he was going to be beaten by a woman, and he got his blood up, and that raised my grit.”

Lavinia Goodell, October 15, 1874

In August of 1874, just two months after being admitted to practice law, Lavinia Goodell was hired by a Chicago firm to sue a Janesville storekeeper who had refused to pay for a sack of peanuts.

The Janesville Gazette took note of the case:

Miss Lavinia Goodell appeared in justice court this morning as attorney for Messrs. Smith & Lord, of Chicago, in an action against John Davies, of this city. The suit was brought to recover the value of a sack of peanuts, which the plaintiff sent to Davies among other goods. He claims the nuts were worthless and refuses to pay for them.

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Lavinia Goodell’s Bid to Become Janesville City Attorney

Lavinia Goodell’s Bid to Become Janesville City Attorney

Long before anyone asked whether women are “electable,” Lavinia Goodell threw her hat in the ring. This week CUNY professor Jill Norgren, and Swarthmore College Professor Wendy Chmielewski guest post on one of Lavinia’s little known, impressive firsts–1st American woman to run for city attorney. Professors Norgren and Chmielewski co-founded HerHatWasinthe ring.org, a timely digital project about women who ran for office before 1920. Norgren wrote Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would be President, a fascinating biography about one of Lavinia’s “sisters in law.

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Lavinia’s 1st jury trial: “The Courthouse was full of men and women and great excitement prevailed.”

Lavinia’s 1st jury trial: “The Courthouse was full of men and women and great excitement prevailed.”

In the 19th century only men could be jurors. So when Lavinia Goodell strode into the Jefferson County Courthouse on September 17, 1874, to try her first jury case she faced a male judge, a male opposing counsel, an all-male jury and . . . a courtroom filled with gawkers. Again, we have her firsthand account of the day.

19th century courtroom
How the courtroom may have looked to Wisconsin’s 1st woman lawyer

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Lavinia wins her 1st court trials! “‘How’s that for a high?’–as the boys say.”

Lavinia wins her 1st court trials! “‘How’s that for a high?’–as the boys say.”

August 4, 1874, marks an important day in Wisconsin, and arguably American, legal history. It’s the day Lavinia Goodell, Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer tried her first two court cases, back-to-back, in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Because Lavinia was a disciplined diarist and a prolific letter writer, and because her papers are preserved at Berea College, we have her first-hand account, and know her innermost thoughts, about this event.

Pages from Lavinia Goodell's Dairy, August 4th and 5th 1874
Lavinia’s actual diary entries for August 4-5, 1874

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“We are marching on.”

“We are marching on.”

Lavinia Goodell, Janesville, Wisconsin, 1873

Do you think women’s marches are a 21st century phenomenon? Far from it. In the summer of 1873, Lavinia Goodell, secretary of Janesville’s newly formed Ladies Temperance Union, helped organize a march to city hall to protest the granting of liquor licenses.

Plans for the march began at a mass meeting at the Janesville opera house. According to an ad Lavinia composed and delivered to the Janesville Gazette, the purpose of the meeting was:

To consider the duties of the hour. This is not a movement of sect or party, but an earnest effort of all the ladies to stay the tide of intemperance in our midst. Let every earnest woman come.

Ad in the Janesville Gazette which begins Mass Meeting! of the Ladies of Janesville.
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Spittoon or no spittoon? Hanging out a shingle in 1874

Spittoon or no spittoon? Hanging out a shingle in 1874

If launching your own law firm seems daunting today, imagine what it was like for Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer in 1874. Lavinia’s letters and diaries describe how she established her practice and planned to get work. Some parts of the process are much the same as today; others are amusingly different. For example, when furnishing her office Lavinia pondered “spittoon or no spittoon?” If her prospective clients had “spitting propensities” they would expect one.

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