“Old Ryan’s opinion is a disgrace to the Bench—real smutty!”

The caption to Chief Justice Ryan's opinion denying Lavinia Goodell admission to the bar of the Wisconsin Supreme Court

Newspapers around the country had published the full text of Lavinia Goodell’s petition for admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s bar, so she wasn’t the only one on pins and needles during the two months leading up to the decision. At last, on February 17, 1876, the press reported that the court had denied her petition. Lavinia came out swinging.

I have not seen the opinion in full of the honorable court, but from the sketches of it in the papers, I should judge that that august body had descended to throw dirt in a way, which the lowest thief and tramp would be ashamed.

If I don’t come out and give old Ryan a skinning over this, it will be because I can’t, and I think I can.  I am anxious to get the opinion in full.  Perhaps it will be the best thing that ever happened, as creating thought and discussion, and the very spirit in which the decision is given will help me and hurt the enemy. (Emphasis in original).

Chief Justice Ryan wrote the unanimous opinion, which included a notorious rationale:

This is the first application for admission of a female to the bar of this court. And it is just matter for congratulation that it is made in favor of a lady whose character raises no personal objection: something perhaps not always to be looked for in women who forsake the ways of their sex for the ways of ours . . .

The law of nature destines and qualifies the female sex for the bearing and nurture of the children of our race and for the custody of the homes of the world and their maintenance in love and honor. And all life-long callings of women, inconsistent with these radical and sacred duties of their sex, as is the profession of law, are departures from the order of nature; and when voluntary, treason against it . . .

The peculiar qualities of womanhood, its gentle graces, its quick sensibility, its tender susceptibility, its purity, its delicacy, its emotional impulses, its subordination of hard reason to sympathetic feeling, are surely not qualifications for forensic strife . . .

Discussions are habitually necessary in courts of justice, which are unfit for female ears. The habitual presence of women at these would tend to relax the public sense of decency and propriety. If, as counsel has threatened, these things are to come, we will take no part in bringing them about.

After finally seeing the full opinion, Lavinia told her cousin:

I believe I told you in my last that the Sup. Ct. had refused me admittance. It is too late now to get a bill into the Legislature. I am “mad.” Have had several letters of condolence – some from people I never saw sympathizing with me! Old Ryan’s opinion is a disgrace to the Bench – real smutty. I think of coming out upon him; but shall wait till after Miss Burrington’s case is decided, so he will not revenge himself on me by going against her. (Emphasis in original).

Lavinia wasn’t the only one who found the decision infuriating. The Janesville Gazette immediately published this notice:

Chicago Journal notice that Susan B. Anthony was irritated by Chief Justice Ryan's decision to deny Lavinia Goodell admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court

Thoughts about Ryan’s opinion? Share them in the comment section below.

Coming soon: Lavinia’s public rebuttal to Ryan’s opinion and the press’s entertaining coverage of their showdown. CB

Sources consulted: In re Goodell, 39 Wis. 232, 240, 245-246  (1875); Maria Goodell Frost, Life of Lavinia Goodell (unpublished manuscript at Berea College); Lavinia’s letter to Sarah Thomas, 2/24/76; Janesville Gazette, February 17, 1876.

Leave a Reply