“Law offices, suffering for want of students to help, … and yet they would not let me in, because I was a woman.”

— Lavinia Goodell, 1873

It is a common misconception that Belle Case LaFollette, wife of Wisconsin Governor and U.S. Senator Fighting Bob LaFollette, was Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer. While Belle was the first woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law school in 1885 — five years after Lavinia’s death —  Lavinia became the state’s first woman attorney in 1874 after studying the law on her own for over two years and then passing an examination in the Rock County Circuit Court. Entering the profession without going to law school was quite common at the time. Many of Lavinia’s sisters in law followed the same path.

Young men would typically prepare for a legal career by reading the law in an established law office. Lavinia would have liked to do the same, but she found the lawyers in Janesville, Wisconsin were not willing to take on a female apprentice. She wrote to her sister:

I wanted to go into an office, like any other student and get practice, but human nature in these regions is not educated up to that. [One attorney] thought he had no room for me, he was sure he had no work, but I am thankful for the use of his library, and such instruction and advice in my study as he and his partner … are willing to give…. I could do no better in any other office here, not that they have any particular prejudice against strong-minded women, but that the superior masculine mind has a terror of being laughed at.

They would sooner hire shiftless, incompetent boys, that are continuously bringing them grief, than take my services gratis; when they know how steady I am, and anxious to learn. [The partners] took a young gentleman student, only a few months after telling me that they had no work for me, settled him in a nice little ante room by himself, with a desk giving him plenty of work. Of course I have envied him some, sitting there with every advantage getting an insight into practical law, through their cases learning more in a week than I could in a month of unaided study. This however hard to take is, nevertheless a good tonic, and stimulates me to greater effort. (1)

Lavinia proved to be a dedicated and resolute student. For more than two years her diary entries are full of notations such as, “Studied law all day. Did not go out,” “Commenced Greenleaf’s Evidence and read 50 pages. Like it first rate,” “Studied all day but didn’t get alone very fast, being uncommonly stupid,” “Read 70 pages of Kent today; all about mortgages. Am tired and nervous,” and “Canned raspberries and studied law.” (2)

Starting in 1873, Lavinia frequently walked the half mile from her home to the Rock County courthouse to observe all variety of court proceedings. On April 29, 1873, she reported:

Went to court at 8 A.M. Staid all day, only coming home to dinner. Real fun. Have learned lots. Am curiously treated, tho lawyers friendly. Was the only woman there. (2)

The following day she said, “Another court day; very interesting and I think profitable. The clerk gave me a calendar and the sheriff seats me inside the bar.” (2)

Throughout Lavinia’s legal studies, her father remained a constant source of support. In March of 1874, she commented:

I commenced my new vol. Bishop on criminal procedure. It seems Bishop is an old friend of Father’s, an editorial assistant in old anti-slavery days. I like the book first rate; read 54 pages. (2)

The following month, William Goodell came to his daughter’s rescue when a severe head cold left Lavinia unable to keep up with her daily reading:

My cold so bad couldn’t use my eyes. Father read 40 pages of law to me.

At home all day; eyes better but not well. Father read 50 pages of law out loud to me. (2)

Lavinia’s diligent course of study paid off. On June 17, 1874, she passed a rigorous examination and was admitted to practice before the Rock County circuit court, becoming Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer. NK

Sources Consulted:  (1) Lavinia Goodell to Maria Frost, November 18, 1873;  (2) Lavinia Goodell’s diary (January 9, 1873; July 21, 1873; February 26, 1874; July 19, 1873; April 29, 173; April 30, 1873; March 9, 1874; April 14, 1874; April 15, 1874).

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