Spinsterhood: the fate of an unattractive woman or a radical act?

Spinsterhood: the fate of an unattractive woman or a radical act?

Have you seen the Little Women movie? The new ending would have incited Lavinia Goodell to dash off an op-ed for the Woman’s Journal.

Jo March negotiating with her editor in Greta Gerwig's 2019 adaptation of Little Women
Jo March negotiating with her editor, Little Women (2019)

Greta Gerwig has Jo March telling an editor that her heroine was adamantly opposed marriage, so the novel would not end with her wedding either Laurie or Professor Bhaer. The editor shot back: “Who cares! Girls want to see women married, not consistent. If you end your delightful book with your heroine a spinster, no one will buy it. It won’t be worth printing.” For Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer, “them’s fightin’ words!”

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“Do not be surprised if you are sued for defamation.”

— William Goodell, September 28, 1867

By all accounts, Lavinia Goodell had planned to continue teaching indefinitely at the Brooklyn home of Mr. Lynn, a wealthy merchant, but at the end of the school year in 1867 a bitter dispute arose between her and Lynn over her promised wages. As Lavinia tells it:

I did not ask him for anything for the time that I did not teach…. All I asked was that he should pay me what he agreed to for the time I did teach. He promised – and I had his written word for it – to pay me $300 a year, if we had 12 scholars, promising verbally that if we had over 12 I should have all the extra money, over and above what came in for 12.

We had 12 all the time, and much of the time 15. We had no settlement till I came to leave. Then I brought in my bill for $224 for 3/4 of a year; and $46 for the extra scholars; whereupon he positively refused to pay me excepting at the rate of $200 a year, or $150 for 3/4 of a year, saying that was all he promised. I showed him the letter in which he promised $300, and he was the angriest man you ever saw. He was rude, and insulting, and he said he should pay me no more than he pleased, and that I could prove nothing against him as the bargain was not a legal document with a seal. I never was as surprised in my life. At the final settlement, this fall – by holding out about it, and making him think I might do something – I brought him to a compromise, and he paid me at the rate of $275 a year, no allowance for extra scholars. A lawyer, who appears to be well posted, and is secretary to the mayor said I could have received the whole by going to law; and that I was foolish not to do it. Mary Booth thought it was outrageous, and it was with her advice that I wrote him that letter. I am not sorry I did it. I think such villainy ought to be exposed for the protection of innocent and unsuspecting people – not, of course, from motives of revenge. Everybody who knows it is even more indignant than I have been over it.

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“I find I am getting quite a reputation as a good teacher.”

“I find I am getting quite a reputation as a good teacher.”

Lavinia Goodell, October 14, 1866

When the anti-slavery newspaper, The Principia, ceased publication after the end of the Civil War, Lavinia Goodell was out of a job. In September 1865 she began a new career as a teacher in a home located at 26 South 10th Street, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.  Lavinia’s new employer was a wealthy merchant. Lavinia described her new position to her sister:

I have just formed an engagement to teach in a family… at a salary of $300 including boards & washing…. I answered an advertisement, and the advertiser turned out … to be an old acquaintance…. Mr. Lynn…. There are two little girls, 10 and 10, and a boy 8. The plan is to have a small house school having nine children outside of the family, making the whole number twelve. This I think I shall like. Mr. and Mrs. Lynn seem like very pleasant people and I think I shall enjoy living there. They tell me I shall be just like one of the family,… Mr. L. … received 150 answers to his advertisement, but gave me the preference.

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“O, ‘Ria, I have seen Honest Abe!”

Lavinia Goodell, February 21, 1861

Abraham Lincoln was elected the nation’s sixteenth president on November 6, 1860. In mid February, 1861, Lincoln left Springfield, Illinois on a rail journey that would take him on a whistle-stop tour through numerous towns in advance of his March 4 inauguration. On the afternoon of February 19,  twenty-one year old Lavinia Goodell joined throngs of other New Yorkers to watch the president-elect’s carriage procession in mid-town Manhattan. According to the February 20, 1861 New York Times, the special train carrying Lincoln and his entourage arrived at the new depot of the Hudson River Railroad on 30th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues punctually at 3:00 p.m. Lincoln was greeted by a jubilant crowd:

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“They were in hopes of getting me tipsy.”

“They were in hopes of getting me tipsy.”

— Lavinia Goodell, Christmas 1869

Throughout her life, Lavinia Goodell enjoyed learning new things. In early 1868 she reported to her parents that she was studying German. Her instructor was a native German speaker, and she paid $20 for 25 one-hour weekly lessons.

In the fall of 1869, Lavinia decided that the best way to improve her German language skills would be to live with a German family, so she put an advertisement in the Staats-Zeitung German newspaper saying, “An American lady would like to find board in an educated and refined German family, for the purpose of learning the language. Minister’s family preferred.”  Lavinia received two responses and chose to rent a room at 228 East 23rd Street in New York. The move greatly shortened Lavinia’s commuting time to her job at Harper’s Bazar in lower Manhattan.

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Working at Harper’s Bazar

Working at Harper’s Bazar

What was it like for a woman to work at America’s first fashion magazine in the late 1860s? Follow this this blog, and you will find out. In family letters, Lavinia Goodell, Wisconsin’s future first female lawyer, provided detailed accounts of her day-to-day responsibilities as assistant editor at Harper’s Bazar and of her relationships with the famous Harper brothers.

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Present at the Creation: Harper’s Bazar

Present at the Creation: Harper’s Bazar

It’s true! Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer helped launch America’s first fashion magazine. In 1867, Harper & Brothers, a highly respected publisher, sought to expand its audience with the revolutionary Harper’s Bazar,* a weekly journal that reported on style, explained how to pin a bun, commented on work, family, and social mores, and published poetry and fiction from prestigious writers like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy.  Lavinia Goodell was present at the creation.

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Of turkey-gobblers and young ladies!

Of turkey-gobblers and young ladies!

In 1862, a young man at the Brooklyn Times wrote: “The study of astronomy is of about as much use to a young lady as a knowledge of cookery is to a hen.” Lavinia, then a 22-year old Brooklynite, skewered him in The Principia:

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