“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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“I love old maids!”

“I love old maids!”

Lavinia Goodell, December 1861

William Goodell’s anti-slavery newspaper, the Principia, was published every on Saturday. The first six and a half pages of the December 28, 1861 issue were filled with Civil War news and abolitionists’ hopes for an end to the conflict and freedom for the enslaved. But the “Family Miscellany” section that occupied the last page and a half of the paper offered readers lighter fare, including a piece written by twenty-two year old Lavinia Goodell titled “Old Maids.”

Lavinia exclaimed:

I love old maids – I do! They are decidedly the most excellent portion of the community, the cream of society, the very salt of the earth! Who is the heart, and soul, and life of the Benevolent Society? – the old maid. Who makes the home circle, and her own, sunny and joyous? The old maid. Who is the oracle, the model, the joy and delight the Alpha and Omega of numberless wee ones? The old maid auntie. Who is the minister’s right-hand man? Who is ever ready to go on an errand of mercy to the suffering and afflicted? Who is to be depended upon to undertake what must be done and nobody else will do? In short, who is the most unselfish of mortals? The old maid — God bless her!

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“All men are commanded to repent. How significant that no women are thus commanded!”

“All men are commanded to repent. How significant that no women are thus commanded!”

Lavinia Goodell, May 1872

In early 1872, newspapers reported the scandalous story that Sarah Smiley, a Quaker woman, had been allowed to preach in a Brooklyn Presbyterian church. Lavinia Goodell, who had moved from Brooklyn to Janesville, Wisconsin the previous year, followed the story with interest and wrote a series of articles expressing her support that women should be allowed in the ministry – and in every other profession. Read more here.

Professor S.C. Bartlett, D.D., who was then a professor at the Chicago Theological Seminary and later became the president of Dartmouth College, wrote lengthy opinion pieces for  the Advance, a weekly publication of the Congregational Church, arguing that St. Paul himself forbade women from preaching and how dare Ms. Smiley or anyone else think otherwise.

Bartlett’s articles caught the attention of  Henry Ward Beecher, the famous pastor whose Brooklyn church Lavinia had sometimes attended.

Henry Ward Beecher

Beecher was a woman’s rights advocate and countered Bartlett’s arguments. This led to a spirited back and forth between the two men.

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