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We are delighted to illuminate the important work of Lavinia Goodell. This blog shares significant moments in Lavinia’s life and excerpts from her personal papers. You may browse the posts or use the Table of Contents to find posts that interest you. Please subscribe and help spread the word about Wisconsin's first woman lawyer.

This website is a wonderful tribute to Lavinia Goodell

This website is a wonderful tribute to Lavinia Goodell

Former Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court Shirley Abrahamson

“In the 1870’s Lavinia Goodell became the first woman admitted to the Wisconsin state bar and then fought an epic battle for the right to practice before that state’s highest court. One century later I was sworn in as Wisconsin’s first woman Supreme Court Justice. Throughout my career in the law I worked hard to open doors for others, just as Lavinia opened the doors to the courtroom where I proudly sat for more than four decades, and presided as Chief Justice for more than 18 years. Lavinia resides in the pantheon of Wisconsin heroes. This website is a wonderful and loving tribute to this remarkable person. I urge everyone to scroll through these pages and find inspiration. Forward!”Former Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson, March 2, 2020

Posted by admin in Press about Lavinia's biography, Wisconsin Supreme Court battles, 2 comments

“Went to a temperance drama at Lappin’s Hall.”

“Went to a temperance drama at Lappin’s Hall.”

Lavinia Goodell, February 10, 1874

Janesville, Wisconsin has a wealth of historical buildings remaining, including some frequented by Lavinia Goodell when she lived in the city in the 1870s. One such building is the Lappin-Hayes Block located at the corner of Main and Milwaukee Streets, in the heart of the city’s downtown.

Lappin Block, c. 1880

Janesville is named after Henry James, who built a timber house on the Rock River, on the site of the Lappin-Hayes block, in 1836. Thomas Lappin, an early Janesville merchant, built a two-story store there in 1842. In 1855, Lappin erected a four-story red brick Italianate building on the site. The ground floor housed stores. The second floor had office space leased to attorneys, physicians, and other professionals. John Cassoday, one of Lavinia Goodell’s mentors, who later became Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, had his office in Lappin’s Block. The top floors of the building contained two performance halls, Lappin’s Hall and Apollo Hall. Lappin’s Hall was the larger one. It held hundreds of people and hosted many performances and community events. In her letters and diaries, Lavinia Goodell mentioned attending many functions there.

Janesville Daily Gazette, November 24, 1875
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Posted by admin in Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, 0 comments

“A young man from Beloit, by name of Dow, was examined and admitted with me.”

“A young man from Beloit, by name of Dow, was examined and admitted with me.”

Lavinia Goodell, June 18, 1874

Lavinia Goodell was not the only person to successfully undertake the bar examination at the Rock County Courthouse and be admitted to practice law in Wisconsin on June 17, 1874. A second aspiring attorney went through the same trial. Lavinia wrote to her sister the next day, “A young man from Beloit, by name of Dow, was examined and admitted with me.”

Lavinia Goodell’s June 17, 1874 letter to Maria Frost

Lavinia expanded on her Beloit colleague in a letter to her cousin Sarah Thomas. She explained that although she had initially doubted that Judge Conger would hold the examination on June 17:

But he said that the Beloit young man had come, and perhaps I had better go up and see him, and see if we could get the judge to approve a time. So I went up. Found the young man glad to see me, and we became good friends at once. He seemed quite pleased with the idea of being examined with a lady and was quite cordial and gallant. I found that he dreaded the examination full as much as I did, which was quite a consolation to me. He was in a hurry wanting to return to Beloit that night, so his lawyer pushed up the judge, to let us in, to be examined that night…. [W]e weathered the storm very well, and I do not think I suffered any by comparison with my colleague.

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Posted by admin in Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, Friends, 1 comment

“I am anxious to go to school next quarter.”

“I am anxious to go to school next quarter.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 26, 1853

Lavinia Goodell was a sickly child and, as a result, had very little in the way of formal education until she and her parents moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1853. It has long been known that Lavinia graduated from the Brooklyn Heights Seminary, a girl’s school, in 1858, but we have recently discovered that before matriculating there, she briefly attended two other schools. We do not know the names of these schools, but Goodell family letters describe her coursework and experience at these institutions.

Lavinia Goodell, c. 1854

Lavinia apparently did not commence school until early 1854 since in a letter written in late December of 1853 she told her sister, “I am anxious to go to school next quarter but don’t know where to go.” By February 1854, fourteen-year-old Lavinia had begun a course of study but was apparently not enthralled with all aspects of the instruction. Lavinia’s mother wrote to her elder daughter:

I am glad she is in school. Her teacher gives her words with the definition and wants her to write sentences and bring in those words. I cannot see any great advantages from that myself. L does not like it very well.  

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Posted by admin in Growing Up: 1839-1859, 0 comments

“The extent to which wives flatter the vanity and humor the weaknesses of their husbands is humiliating to both men and women, and degrading to matrimony.”

“The extent to which wives flatter the vanity and humor the weaknesses of their husbands is humiliating to both men and women, and degrading to matrimony.”

Lavinia Goodell, October 1876

Lucy Stone, a lifelong advocate for women’s rights, was one of Lavinia Goodell’s mentors.

Lucy Stone

In 1870, Lucy and her husband, Henry Blackwell, launched the Woman’s Journal, a paper promoting suffrage and women’s rights. Lavinia Goodell wrote numerous articles for the paper and shortly before her death she was added to the masthead as a contributor.

In a September 28, 1876 diary entry, Lavinia wrote, “Commenced piece for Woman’s Journal.” She finished the article four days later. It appeared in the paper’s October 28, 1876 issue.

In the piece, titled “Ownership of Wives,” Lavinia outlined how society required women to subordinate themselves to men, to the detriment of women’s intellectual and moral development.

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Posted by admin in Women's rights, 0 comments

“We women are all radicals.”

“We women are all radicals.”

Lavinia Goodell, February 1860

The articles that Lavinia Goodell contributed to her father’s anti-slavery newspaper, the Principia, have been discussed in some of our earlier posts. (Read more here.) The February 25, 1860 issue of the paper contained an article she authored (although it was attributed to “Housekeeper”) titled “Meditations on Sweeping a Room.”

Twenty-year-old Lavinia’s piece was superficially about cleaning a room but, at a deeper level, it revealed that even at a young age she firmly believed women were every bit as capable as men – and were better suited to handle some tasks than their male counterparts. It also showed that she understood that when trying to accomplish something big (such as gaining more rights for women) it was better to implement small, incremental changes rather than trying to transform the world overnight.

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Posted by admin in Principia years, 1 comment

“I am in no haste to marry.”

“I am in no haste to marry.”

Lavinia Goodell, February 14, 1864

While the majority of nineteenth century women married, Lavinia Goodell remained single and, by all accounts, her lack of a husband never bothered her. (Her sister, on the other hand, worried that Lavinia would not be able to support herself and hoped she would find a suitable spouse. Read more here.) The many articles Lavinia wrote for the Principia, her father’s anti-slavery newspaper, often poked fun at traditional notions of how women should behave. In an 1862 article titled, “Wanted: A Match – Summary of a Nice Wife,” Lavinia responded to a piece that had appeared in another publication which called on women to be in communion with their husbands; believe in the virtue of glossy hair and well-fitting gowns; speak low and not speak much; never scold and rarely argue, and adjust with a smile. Lavinia’s humorous but rather biting retort suggested that the man who wanted to mate with such a creature should possess a gigantic intellect, be a good provider, and never give her reason to scold or argue. She ended the piece by saying, “Such a man we may have dreamed of, but never have seen.”

From the November 20, 1862 Principia. Lavinia wrote a response to a piece that had appeared in the Exchange.

Read Lavinia’s entire piece here.

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Posted by admin in Young Adulthood: 1860-1871, Women's rights, 0 comments

“Miss Goodell is a person of rather a singular character.”

“Miss Goodell is a person of rather a singular character.”

Written by a friend of Lavinia Goodell, May 9, 1866

When she died in 1880, Lavinia Goodell left behind hundreds of letters, multiple diaries, and many published articles which provide insight into her character and personality, but how did the people closest to her view her? Fortunately the William Goodell Family Papers in the Special Collections and Archives at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky provide firsthand descriptions of Lavinia as a young woman. Maria Goodell Frost wrote a lengthy unpublished biography of her sister.

Maria Goodell Frost

While highly complimentary of its subject, to be frank, parts of that work come across as a bit stilted and hard to read. But the Goodell Family Papers also contain a brief three page biography in which Maria succinctly summed up her sister’s character:

Lavinia inherited the logical traits of her father and the keen sprightly wit and quick perceptions of the Cadys. This combination fitted her by nature for her chosen profession of law, in which she distinguished herself. The friends of William Goodell loudly lamented that Lavinia was not a boy that she might succeed her father as a philanthropist. She was often told that she ought to have been a boy, which obligation exceedingly amused her, and she failed to perceive why being a girl she could not also be a philanthropist and do some good in the world. 

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Posted by admin in Growing Up: 1839-1859, Young Adulthood: 1860-1871, 1 comment

“Went down street. Got my business cards.”

“Went down street. Got my business cards.”

Lavinia Goodell, June 18, 1874

The William Goodell Family papers, housed in the Special Collections and Archives at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, contain hundreds of letters written or received by Lavinia Goodell, starting from her teenage years in the 1850s and continuing until her death in 1880. In addition, the papers include scores of letters to and from other family members, some of which mention Lavinia. A recent visit to Berea College turned up an exciting – and never before seen – find: a business card that Lavinia had printed just days after her admission to the bar in June 1874.

After passing a rigorous examination in the early evening of June 17, 1874, Lavinia was eager to begin practicing law. Her diary entry for the next day reads, “After tea went down street, got mail and called at Gazette office to get cards printed.” She picked up her business cards three days later.

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Posted by admin in Legal practice, 0 comments
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