The death of Wisconsin’s 1st woman lawyer

Rhoda Lavinia Goodell (May 2, 1839-March 31, 1880)

In the early morning hours of March 31, 1880, Lavinia Goodell died in Milwaukee. She was just a month shy of her 41st birthday. Lavinia had left Janesville in November of 1879 and moved to Madison, setting up her law practice there. She went to Milwaukee in January 1880 to seek treatment for her rapidly declining health at a Turkish bath establishment. When that treatment failed, she was taken to a private residence where she spent her final days. Her cousin Sarah Thomas was with her when she died of ovarian cancer. The Janesville Gazette wrote:

Our citizens will learn with pain the untimely death of Miss Lavinia Goodell. For two or three years past Miss Goodell had been in poor health, but on her return from the East several months ago, she seemed to have almost entirely recovered, and resumed the practice of law…. Miss Goodell was a woman of marked characteristics, of strong will power, and a close student. She studied law in Mr. A.A. Jackson’s office several years ago, was admitted to the bar of the Circuit Court, and after a severe struggle and much delay, was finally admitted to the Supreme Court of this State. She gained almost a national reputation by the manner in which she mastered her case before the Supreme Court, and was widely known by her many and able articles on woman’s rights which appeared in the leading journals of the East. The funeral will take place at the First Congregational church tomorrow at two o’clock.


Lavinia paved the way for generations of women lawyers in Wisconsin. On the 140th anniversary of her death – and the last day of women’s history month – we honor her memory and give thanks for her pioneering efforts to promote equality and fair treatment for all. Studying her life has taught us a great deal. Although Lavinia was a very private person, we hope she would be pleased to know that her words and deeds still resonate in 2020. May her ideals and her legacy continue to inspire generations to come.  NK

2 comments

Jennifer King

Thank you so much for this wonderful website! Lavinia is my 5th great aunt and I am so thankful that someone has made this tribute to her! It does my heart well! 🙂

Beverly Wright

The interesting life of a great lady!

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