“The Old Maids’ Convention, under the title of Woman’s Rights, met at Syracuse yesterday.”

“The Old Maids’ Convention, under the title of Woman’s Rights, met at Syracuse yesterday.”

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 16, 1855

Lavinia Goodell worked tirelessly for women’s rights in the 1870s, and she encountered a fair amount of resistance to her views from both men and women. But even though Lavinia struggled to win people over to her cause, societal attitudes toward women’s roles had already evolved considerably from the 1850s when Lucy Stone, one of Lavinia’s mentors, began advocating for equal rights for women.

Lucy Stone

Lucy Stone was born in Massachusetts in 1818. In 1850, she helped organize multiple women’s rights conventions. A convention held in Salem, Ohio in April declared: “The laws should not make a woman a mere prisoner on the bounty of her husband, thus enslaving her will, and degrading her to a condition of absolute dependence.”

The Liberator, a publication edited by William Lloyd Garrison, announced a convention to be held in Worcester, Massachusetts in October 1850 and said, “The signs are encouraging; the time is opportune.” The announcement continued:

Woman has been condemned, from her greater delicacy of physical organization, to inferiority of intellectual and moral culture, and to the forfeiture of great social, civil and religious privileges…. But, by the inspiration of the Almighty, the beneficent spirit of reform is roused to the redress of those wrongs.

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“To stifle the longings of an immortal soul to follow any useful calling in this life is a departure from the order of nature.”

“To stifle the longings of an immortal soul to follow any useful calling in this life is a departure from the order of nature.”

Attorney Ada M. Bittenbender, writing about Lavinia Goodell

In 1891, eleven years after Lavinia Goodell’s death, Henry Holt published a book titled Woman’s Work in America.

Edited by Annie Nathan Meyer, founder of Barnard College, New York’s first liberal arts college for women, the book contained chapters on women in various professions. In the introduction, Julia Ward Howe (a writer, abolitionist, and suffragist best known for writing the Battle Hymn of the Republic) wrote, “The theory that women should not be workers is a corruption of the old aristocratic system.” Ms. Howe went to note that a speaker at a Massachusetts legislative hearing had recently asked why women did not enter the professions. Ms. Howe said, “One might ask how he could escape knowing that in all of these fields … women are doing laborious work and with excellent results?”  

Lavinia Goodell was featured prominently in Chapter nine of the book, “Women in Law.” The chapter was written by Ada M. Bittenbender, the first woman admitted to practice before the Nebraska Supreme Court and the third woman admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.

Ada Bittenbender

Ms. Bittenbender recounted Lavinia’s battle to be admitted to practice before the Wisconsin Supreme Court and quoted at length  Chief Justice Ryan’s opinion denying her petition. Ms. Bittenbender predicted that Ryan’s opinion “will be read with interest and remain of historic value as showing the fossilized misconceptions woman combated with in attaining the generally acceptable position in the legal profession in this country which she now holds.”

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Posted by admin in Wisconsin Supreme Court battles, 2 comments

“Lavinia Goodell is a shrewd, quick-witted girl, fond of humor, studious and argumentative.”

“Lavinia Goodell is a shrewd, quick-witted girl, fond of humor, studious and argumentative.”

Lippincott’s Magazine, March 1879

Lavinia Goodell received a fair amount of national media attention during the years she practiced law in Wisconsin. While precise numbers are virtually impossible to come by, it is fair to say that when Lavinia was admitted to practice law in the summer of 1874 there were fewer than a dozen women lawyers in the entire country. The novelty of her admission made her newsworthy, and her epic battle with Chief Justice Ryan in which she sought to be admitted to practice before the Wisconsin Supreme Court generated many columns of ink.

The March 1879 issue of Lippincott’s Magazine contained a profile of Lavinia written by someone identified only by the initials M.W.P.

The identity of the author is unknown, but he or she evidently knew Lavinia during the time she worked at Harper’s Bazar (1867 to 1871). The piece gave one of the most detailed descriptions of Lavinia’s appearance and personality:

When I first knew Miss Goodell, she was employed in a literary way in the office of Harper’s Bazar – a shrewd, quick-witted girl, fond of humor, studious and argumentative. In person she was of medium height, but looking tall from her slender, erect figure, blue-eyed, and with light brown curling hair.

From Lippincott’s Magazine March 1879
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Posted by admin in Legal practice, 1 comment

“Clear and cold. Got up late.”

“Clear and cold. Got up late.”

Lavinia Goodell, January 1, 1879

With the exception of 1878,  Lavinia Goodell made daily entries in a diary from 1873 until shortly before she died in 1880. The small leather bound volumes are part of the William Goodell family papers housed in the special collections and archives at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. (Lavinia’s beloved eldest nephew, William Goodell Frost, was the long time president of Berea College.)

One of Lavinia Goodell’s diaries

The diaries and vast cache of family correspondence provide a firsthand view of Lavinia’s life. The amount of primary source material written by Lavinia herself is truly astounding and allows us to know what she was doing and thinking on an almost daily basis.

1878 had been a difficult year for Lavinia. Both of her parents died, and she spent months in the east undergoing and then recovering from major surgery to remove an ovarian tumor. No diary survives from this annus horribilis, but Lavinia took up her pen again in 1879.

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Posted by admin in Diaries, Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, 0 comments

“Was at the prison most of the day.”

“Was at the prison most of the day.”

Lavinia Goodell, March 18, 1879

During the years she practiced law in Janesville, Wisconsin, Lavinia Goodell was appointed to represent a number of criminal defendants. (Read more about her experience here.)  She also started a jail school, believing that if the men were educated they had a much better chance of becoming productive members of society after their release.

Lavinia took a personal interest in the inmates and formed close relationships with some of them. She encouraged them to write to her. Some called her “Mother” and gave her photographs of themselves. Judging by the number of times she mentioned them and corresponded with them, two of her favorites were named Sutton and Sullivan. Both men were ultimately sent to the state prison in Waupun, Wisconsin. The prison had opened in the 1850s.

Waupun State prison, c. 1870s

Lavinia visited Waupun to see her “boys” in March of 1879. According to her diary, she “Brought presents for the boys” and “had good talks” with Sutton, Sullivan, and others the night of her arrival.

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Posted by admin in Life in Wisconsin: 1871-1880, Jail school/prison reform, 0 comments

“My admission seems to amuse Deacon Eldred.”

“My admission seems to amuse Deacon Eldred.”

Lavinia Goodell, June 30, 1874

During the eight years that Lavinia Goodell lived in Janesville, Wisconsin, in addition to first studying and then practicing law, she was a member of the Congregational Church, actively promoted temperance, and worked to establish a free reading room in the city. Through her participation in these activities she met many prominent Janesville citizens with common interests. One of them was F. S. Eldred.

Frederick Starr Eldred was born in New York State in 1821. He came to Wisconsin in 1842 and moved to Janesville in 1856. In his early years in the city he engaged in the lumber business, after which he went into the grocery trade.

March 9, 1872 Janesville Gazette

Eldred was one of the organizers of the Janesville Cotton Manufacturing Company. He served as an alderman and was one of the incorporators of the First National bank and its first vice-president. He was an active supporter of the temperance cause. In 1873, Eldred’s wife joined Lavinia Goodell and other local women in marching to city hall to protest the granting of additional liquor licenses.

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

“Miss Goodell will be admitted to practice in this court.”

“Miss Goodell will be admitted to practice in this court.”

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Oramus Cole, June 18, 1879

Lavinia Goodell’s name will forever be linked with that of Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward Ryan since he was the author of the infamous opinion that held only men were eligible to practice law in Wisconsin and denied Lavinia’s first petition for admission to practice before the Wisconsin Supreme Court . (Read more here). Ryan’s life and career have been heavily scrutinized for 150 years, but the justice who, in 1879, authored the very short opinion granting Lavinia’s second motion to be admitted to the Supreme Court bar receives much less attention.  That is unfortunate because Justice Orasmus Cole was a valued member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court for nearly four decades.

Justice Orasmus Cole

Cole was born in New York State in 1819. Both of his grandfathers served in the Revolutionary war. He studied law and was admitted to the New York bar in 1845. Late that year he settled in the small southwest Wisconsin mining town of Potosi. In 1847, he served as a delegate to the second Wisconsin constitutional convention. In 1848, after the constitution was ratified, the Whig party nominated Cole as their candidate for Congress. He won the election. He refused to support the fugitive slave provisions of the 1850 compromise that gave new states coming into the union the choice of whether to allow slavery, and he was defeated in his 1850 bid for reelection.

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“Sent for Dr. Chittenden and had a consultation with him.”

“Sent for Dr. Chittenden and had a consultation with him.”

Lavinia Goodell, May 7, 1877

When Lavinia Goodell and her parents lived in Janesville, Wisconsin in the 1870s, their family physician was G. W. Chittenden, a surgeon as well as a homeopathic practitioner.

Dr. G. W. Chittenden

George Washington Chittenden was born in Oneida County, New York in 1820. His father fought in the Revolutionary War. Dr. Chittenden graduated from Albany Medical College in 1846 and after practicing a few months in Chicago, where he investigated the principles of homeopathic medicine, he settled in Janesville in 1846 and practiced there for the rest of his life.

December 19, 1846 Janesville Gazette
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