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

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Making History: Four Ways to Celebrate 150 Years of Women in the Law

Making History: Four Ways to Celebrate 150 Years of Women in the Law

Join Wisconsin’s legal community in celebrating 150 years of women in the law. Here are four ways that you, your law firm, or local legal community can recognize the significant contributions women have made to Wisconsin’s legal history.

Governor Proclaims June 17 as Wisconsin Women Lawyers Day

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lavinia Goodell becoming Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer, Gov. Tony Evers has proclaimed June 17, 2024, as Wisconsin Women Lawyers Day.

The proclamation praises Goodell for pioneering a path for women in the legal profession across the state and for facing the many obstacles thrown in her path with unwavering resilience. It recognizes the lasting impact of women lawyers on the fabric of the state’s legal system and emphasizes the importance of continuing to support and promote the advancement of women in the legal profession.

“In the spirit of this proclamation, we invite the legal community to share their own histories and stories of the women within their law firms, offices, or law-related organizations with the public, clients, and local media,” suggests Mary E. Burke. Burke and a consortium of women lawyers, including representatives of the Association for Women Lawyers, the Legal Association for Women, and the Women Lawyers of the North, are planning a variety of activities in 2024 to celebrate this historical event.

Commemorating Goodell’s Admission: June 17 in Janesville

To further celebrate this historical milestone, this consortium of women lawyers is hosting a commemoration of Lavinia Goodell’s admission on Monday, June 17, 2024, which is the anniversary of her admission in Rock County.

Everyone is invited to attend the program at 5 p.m. in the Rock County Courthouse, 51 S. Main St., Janesville. A reception will follow at the nearby Genisa Wine Bar, 11 N. Main St., Janesville (cash bar). There is no cost for the program or reception, but RSVPs are requested for planning purposes. Send replies to wiswomenlaw150@gmail.com.

Exploring Legal Developments Affecting Women: June 20 in Green Bay

The State Bar of Wisconsin’s Annual Meeting & Conference in Green Bay will include a special continuing legal education program exploring some important Wisconsin legal developments affecting women and the women lawyers who advanced them. The program, at 3:15 pm on Thursday, June 20, will begin with a welcome by Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. Topics covered will include:

  • Lavinia Goodell and the right to practice law;
  • Equal pay for equal work;
  • Married women’s right to own property and have credit;
  • Indigenous women’s legal identity, jurisdiction, and missing and murdered indigenous women; and
  • Women as legal peacemakers: collaborative divorce, mediation, and restorative justice

Reenacting Goodell’s Admission: Aug. 8 at Old World Wisconsin

Old World Foundation will host a program celebrating the 150th anniversary of Lavinia Goodell’s admission to practice law in Wisconsin. This program will take place at Old World Wisconsin in Eagle at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 8, during their “Kids Get in Free” week. 

“Old World Wisconsin is Wisconsin’s premier living history attraction that shares the stories of the past through hands-on activities,” says Gwen Griffin, executive director of Old World Foundation. “Thus, this reenactment is the perfect program to bring to the site.” 

The reenactment is especially exciting because this year our foundation is also celebrating the 40-year fundraising partnership with Old World Wisconsin, says Griffin.

To Learn More

To learn more about the celebration of 150 years of women in the law, contact Mary E. Burke at WisWomenLaw150@gmail.com.

To learn more about the programming offered at Old World Wisconsin and to purchase tickets for the Aug. 8 event, visit oldworldwisconsin.org.

For information about Old World Foundation and how it supports Old World Wisconsin, visit oldworldfoundation.org.

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“Little by little, but all the time, we are gaining essential rights.”

“Little by little, but all the time, we are gaining essential rights.”

Woman’s Journal, March 1877

March 8 is Women’s History Day. By happy coincidence, March 8 is also the anniversary of the day that Wisconsin’s governor signed into law legislation drafted by Lavinia Goodell allowing women to practice law in the state.

After Lavinia’s petition to be allowed to practice before the Wisconsin Supreme Court was denied in early 1876 (read more about that here), Lavinia drafted legislation that permitted people of both genders to practice law. Her Janesville colleague John Cassoday , who was speaker of the assembly, introduced the bill for her. In early 1877, Lavinia took the train to Madison where Cassoday introduced her to legislators, although the meetings apparently got off to an inauspicious start. On February 6, Lavinia noted in her diary, “Spent a stupid afternoon in Cassoday’s room waiting for men to come to me and finally had  go to them.”

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“There is no substantial reason why women should be denied the privilege of the ballot”

“There is no substantial reason why women should be denied the privilege of the ballot”

Lavinia Goodell, February 1874

February 1874 was a busy month for Lavinia Goodell. She studied law for hours nearly every day, in anticipation of taking a bar exam that would enable her to officially become a lawyer and begin practicing. She attended Ladies Temperance Union meetings and drafted a petition calling for the repeal of liquor sales in the State of Wisconsin, which she sent to Assemblyman Noah Comstock.

On Monday, February 16, 1874, Lavinia noted in her diary that the day’s mail had brought the Woman’s Journal “with my piece in it.”

The piece in question was titled “Eminent Legal Protests Against the Wrongs of Women,”  and, as with so many of Lavinia’s writings, it advocated for women having full equality with men, both in terms of property rights and by having access to the ballot.

Lavinia was spurred to write the piece after reading an article about Aaron Burr in the January 7, 1874 edition of the New York Weekly Evening Post. The Post article had mentioned Burr’s brother-in-law, Tapping Reeve, who “was the first eminent lawyer in this country who dared to arraign the common law of England for the severity and refined cruelty in cutting off the natural rights of married women, and placing their property as well as their persons at the mercy of their husbands.”

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“I should like to be admitted next summer.”

“I should like to be admitted next summer.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 1873

In January of 1874, exactly 150 years ago, Lavinia Goodell was in the final stages of her law studies and was beginning to plan how and when she would be admitted to practice law. Shortly before Christmas 1873, she wrote to her sister Maria, “I am studying Greenleaf’s evidence. It is very interesting, and I wish I hadn’t anything else to do but just go ahead on my law. I should like to be admitted next summer, but don’t know how it will be.”

Lavinia Goodell’s letter to her sister, December 18, 1873
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“He paid me $5.00 – my first fee here.”

“He paid me $5.00 – my first fee here.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 17, 1879

As 1879 drew to a close, Lavinia Goodell found herself depressed and in ill-health. Her move to Madison (read more here) had not gone as planned. On Wednesday, December 17 Lavinia wrote a 12-page letter to her cousin Sarah Thomas in which she poured out her frustrations.

Lavinia did have one piece of good news. She had won her first case in Madison. “One ray of sunlight has broken in upon my darkness. I won my case in justice court; beat Carpenter (a well known attorney and law professor) all to flinders – if I do say it ‘as hadn’t ought to.'”

Lavinia went on:

I sent you a “Democrat” (a daily Madison newspaper) with some account of it. The Journal didn’t condescend to notice it. I am glad if I seemed bright & witty, tho’ I didn’t feel so. Anyway everybody in the room seemed favorably impressed. There were a whole squad of young law students there, pupils of Carpenter, … and they were delighted to see me give it to the old fellow & just laughed & applauded. It must have been rather galling to him, especially as he is opposed to women lawyers, & has spoken disparagingly of my abilities. So much the worse for him now! If I am inferior & yet can beat him, where is he? Maybe he will be careful what he says for a while now.

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“I have been the bluest and lonesomest dog you ever saw.”

“I have been the bluest and lonesomest dog you ever saw.”

Lavinia Goodell, November 20, 1879

November 1879 was not a happy time for Lavinia Goodell. After eight years in Janesville, Wisconsin, she rather abruptly made the decision to move to Madison, Wisconsin’s capitol city, and set up her law practice there. She arrived in Madison by train on Saturday, November 15. On the 20th she wrote a long letter to her cousin Sarah Thomas in which she laid bare her unhappiness and frustrations:

I have been the bluest and lonesomest dog you ever saw since I have been here; am feeling a little better today. Last week I was very busy packing off, which was melancholy business. I sent the sofas & best rocker, parlor chairs & carpet, stand & bedding to Maria, rocker, stove, dining chairs & office furniture for myself & sold everything else…. Came up here sat. afternoon, bag & baggage. Left freight at the depot & came to Miss Bright’s with trunk & carpet bag.

In October, Lavinia had spent several days in Madison participating in a women’s convention and spent time with the “Misses Bright,” who lived on Carroll Street, at the intersection of Johnson, not far from the capitol. Eliza and Winifred Bright were two elderly unmarried sisters who had for a time run a school for young ladies. By the time Lavinia met the Brights, they were running a boarding house.

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“The woman who always submits wrongs the community.”

“The woman who always submits wrongs the community.”

Lavinia Goodell, October 1879

In the fall of 1879, shortly before she moved to Madison and a few months before ill health forced her to stop practicing law, Lavinia Goodell wrote a number of articles for the Woman’s Journal countering pieces that had appeared in the Christian Union newspaper admonishing women to defer to their husbands. Read more here.

The October 4, 1879 Woman’s Journal contained one of Lavinia’s pieces titled “Submission, or Equality.” Lavinia began by quoting the Christian Union’s comments about her most recent article.

Lavinia lost no time in rebutting the Christian Union’s sentiments:

Would the Christian Union recommend the husband to submit himself to his wife rather than have strife with her, because “almost any error will bring less suffering upon a household, and less evil upon the children, than perpetual conflict between husband and wife? If not, why not?

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