“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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“The part assigned to women by nature is inconsistent with the practice of law.”

“The part assigned to women by nature is inconsistent with the practice of law.”

In re Dorsett, Minnesota Court of Common Pleas, October 1876

Martha Angle Dorsett was the first woman admitted to practice law in Minnesota. Ms. Dorsett was born in New York in 1851. After earning a bachelor of philosophy degree from the University of Michigan, she enrolled in the Iowa College of law. She graduated there in 1876 and married her classmate, Charles Dorsett, the same year.

Photo of Martha Angle Dorsett
Martha Angle Dorsett

Dorsett and her husband were admitted to the Iowa bar. They then relocated to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they applied for admission to practice in Minnesota’s courts. Charles Dorsett’s application was granted. Martha Dorsett’s was not.

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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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“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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“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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“Take that you dirty dog!”

“Take that you dirty dog!”

One of the more controversial characters in Lavinia Goodell’s diaries is Kate Kane (Rossi), Wisconsin’s second woman lawyer. Lavinia helped launch her career. If she had lived long enough to watch it unfold, she probably wouldn’t want the credit. Lavinia was brilliant but cool and reserved in public—more RBG than AOC.  And Kate? She was smart but also a hothead and a showboat, who gave other early women lawyers a bad rap.

Cartoon of Kate Kane throwing water in Judge Mallory's face.

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