Happy Birthday, Vinnie!

Rhoda Lavinia Goodell was born 181 years ago–on May 2, 1839. In celebration of her birthday, we are highlighting some family lore about her personality and escapades as a baby and young child. If hindsight is 20-20, then it was clear early on that Vinnie (as her family and close friends called her) would grow into a trailblazer for women’s rights and other social reforms.

Lavinia Goodell as a girl.
We have no baby photos, but here is Vinnie as a girl.

Vinnie was born to parents old enough to be her grandparents. William (47) and Clarissa (42) were very worried that mother and/or the baby would not survive childbirth. Upon hearing a newborn wail at 3:30 a.m. on May 2nd, William felt “cheered with the voice of the newcomer.” Read his full report here.

Reflecting on her birth years later, big sister Maria wrote:

She was destined at the outset to overthrow existing institutions. The time-honored maxim in all sober families of New England extraction ‘Children are to be seen but not heard,’ was doomed to destruction by the stentorian tones of her decided voice.

Vinnie’s instincts derived from both nature and nurture. William was a minister, abolitionist, and social reformer. Clarissa was more conservative, but even she belonged to organizations like The Maternal Association, which resolved: “We will not patronize any merchant, or businessman who holds in light esteem women’s virtue.”

Neighbor ladies were the first to call on Clarissa and her new baby. They tickled, kissed, and rocked Lavinia. She protested their caresses to the point that they said there must have been a mistake. She ought to have been a boy. Never had they seen a girl with such a will. “If it was not subdued it might lead to serious results.” They bemoaned that William Goodell did not have a son to carry on his philanthropic work.

Gerrit Smith, an abolitionist, New York’s representative in Congress, candidate for president, and good friend of the Goodells, delighted in the name Rhoda because it conveyed the aura of a road, a way, a new path, an exceptional person. Thirty-five years later when Lavinia became Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer, he sent her money to buy law books for her new office.

Alvan Stewart, temperance activist and President of the New York Anti-Slavery Society, also visited the Goodells to meet the new baby. He reportedly peered into her blue eyes and pronounced “She shall be worth ten thousand dollars to you, Brother Goodell.”

It seems Vinnie may have been spoiled. Clarissa wrote her father that the family loved her “a little too much.” “Our babe will be 11 months old in a few days . . . She says ‘Pa’, and ‘Mama,’ and ‘Pa gone.’ We think she is very cunning. Her hair is sandy, and I think she looks a little more like the Cadys than either of my others . . .” [Clarissa was a distant relative of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.]

Maria recalled that before Vinnie’s birth, there had been such a thing as “family government.” Afterwards, only arrangements that were agreeable to her could stand. “[T]he very instant her choices were molested, then there was an uproarious clamor for ‘Baby’s Rights!’”

Case in point: Vinnie refused to be weaned. On a visit to the Goodells even Alvan Stewart thought it odd, given her age. He told William: “If that girl isn’t weaned next time I come along I shall have the town council take it up.” That alarmed William and Clarissa. Vinnie agreed to switch to graham bread and cambric tea, but only in exchange for picture books.

Lavinia’s first trip to church did not go well. After hearing the choir sing, she overflowed in a complimentary speech, which caused her father to take her home. She was indignant but made the best of the situation by hopping around. Her father told her: “You must not play on Sundays!” She replied: “Only leapfrog.” Displeased, he took her by the arm and seated her in a chair more firmly than she liked. Observing the pen behind his ear, she shot back: “Folks don’t write on Sundays.”

Upsetting the world order. Insisting upon equal rights. Speaking truth to power. Yes, inklings of Lavinia Goodell’s future were evident from the beginning. Thank you and happy birthday, Vinnie! CB

Sources consulted: William Goodell’s letter to Josiah Cady, 5/15/1839; Clarissa Goodell’s letter to Josiah Cady, 3/29/1840; Maria Goodell Frost, Life of Lavinia Goodell (unpublished manuscript at Berea College).

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