“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

Continue reading →

Posted by admin in Legal practice, 0 comments

“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.

Continue reading →
Posted by admin in Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, Legal practice, 0 comments

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.

Continue reading →

Posted by admin in Legal practice, Temperance, Women's rights, 0 comments

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

Continue reading →

Posted by admin in Legal practice, 0 comments

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

Continue reading →

Posted by admin in Legal practice, 0 comments

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.

Continue reading →
Posted by admin in Legal practice, 0 comments

“My admission has created quite a little sensation here”

“My admission has created quite a little sensation here”

In 1874, a woman’s place was in the home. Most people (male and female) firmly believed that women shouldn’t even be allowed to vote.  By this point, only a few had taken a bar exam or received a law degree.  So Lavinia’s admission to the Rock County Circuit Court was truly extraordinary. She became a celebrity in Janesville, and the national press noticed. She also reportedly raised the bar for bar examinations!

Continue reading →

Posted by admin in Legal practice, 1 comment

“Why this is an unexpected pleasure . . . I am ready to explode with fun!”

“Why this is an unexpected pleasure . . . I am ready to explode with fun!”

–Lavinia Goodell, September 24, 1874

Many, many thanks to the State Bar of Wisconsin. It has awarded Lavinia Goodell the Lifetime Legal Innovator award posthumously for opening the practice of law to women. Click here. The honor helps raise public awareness about Lavinia’s important contributions to history.

We think that Lavinia would be pleased. To her, the equality of women and men was “like an axiom which it were as idle to dispute as to undertake to controvert the multiplication table.” Click here. She would not have expected to receive the award in 2019–150 years after she was admitted to the Rock County Circuit Court because she thought that once a few women began practicing law, the prejudice against them would melt away quickly. In any case, she would be delighted to learn that opening the bar to women helped improve the hygiene of courtrooms across Wisconsin! In her September 4, 1875 Woman’s Journal article, “Shall Women Study Law?,” she wrote:

Continue reading →

Posted by admin in Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, Press about Lavinia's biography, Legal practice, 2 comments