“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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“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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“You had become a person in the eyes of the Wis. Supreme Court.”

“You had become a person in the eyes of the Wis. Supreme Court.”

Emma Brown letter to Lavinia Goodell, July 11, 1879

Emma Brown, publisher of the Wisconsin Chief temperance newspaper, helped give Lavinia Goodell’s nascent legal career a boost in the summer of 1874.

Emma was born in Auburn, New York in 1827.

Emma Brown

In 1849, Emma and her brother, Thurlow W. Brown, became co-publishers and co-editors of the Cayuga Chief, a temperance newspaper. By 1857, the Browns had relocated to Wisconsin, purchased assets of a defunct Jefferson newspaper and renamed their paper the Wisconsin Chief. Emma Brown supplemented their income by operating a printing shop.

Thurlow Brown was a sought after speaker, and the Chief reprinted many of his speeches. Emma rarely signed her contributions to the paper. When Thurlow died in 1866, few expected the  Chief to survive, but Emma Brown not only soldiered on, she made the paper her own and  began to use it to promote women’s rights.

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“I received my commission as notary public.”

“I received my commission as notary public.”

Lavinia Goodell, February 10, 1875

Since Lavinia Goodell was the first woman admitted to practice law in Wisconsin, it is likely that she was also the first woman in Wisconsin to receive a commission as a notary public. Lavinia’s first mention of serving as a notary appears in a February 10, 1875 letter that she wrote to her sister, Maria Frost:

I received, yesterday, my commission as notary public, from the Gov. So now I can administer the oath, acknowledge deeds, etc. The certificate expresses the Gov’s confidence in my “integrity & ability,” etc. & I had besides a note from his secretary, Mr. Bird (my opposing counsel on the Burrington suit) – read more about the Burrington case here – saying he was very happy to do it for me.

Maria must have inquired what was entailed in being a notary public because on March 24, 1875 Lavinia sent her a lengthy explanation and affixed an imprint of her notary seal to the letter.

Lavinia Goodell’s notary seal
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“Mr. Sloan read my argument. Judge Ryan mad as a bull.”

“Mr. Sloan read my argument. Judge Ryan mad as a bull.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 14, 1875

When Lavinia Goodell applied for admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court bar in 1875, she was not allowed to present the motion to the court herself. Instead, her argument was read by Assistant Attorney General I.C. Sloan. Along with J.B. Cassoday, Sloan, a former Janesville attorney, was one of the people who made Lavinia’s admission to the Supreme Court bar possible.

I. C. Sloan
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“Lawyer Cassoday calls me his sister in law.”

“Lawyer Cassoday calls me his sister in law.”

Lavinia Goodell, June 30, 1874

One of Lavinia Goodell’s staunchest allies during her legal career was John Bolivar Cassoday. He offered her advice on cases, allowed her to use his extensive law library, and as a member of the Wisconsin legislature, introduced the bill that decreed that no person could be denied a license to practice law on account of sex, thus allowing Lavinia to be admitted to practice before the Wisconsin Supreme Court

John Bolivar Cassoday
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“Judge Conger will stand by me.”

“Judge Conger will stand by me.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 20, 1875

When Lavinia Goodell became the first Wisconsin woman admitted to practice law in June of 1874, she could credit her accomplishment on her studiousness and tenacity, but if Circuit Judge Harmon S. Conger had refused to allow her to take the examination given to aspiring attorneys, Lavinia’s battle to become a member of the bar may have been far more protracted. Despite some initial uncertainty as to whether women were eligible to become lawyers, Judge Conger found no statute or rule explicitly prohibiting women’s admission to the bar, and he offered Lavinia the same chance to prove herself afforded to male candidates. Although the judge held conservative ideas on many topics, he treated Lavinia with equanimity and became her mentor and friend.

Photograph of Judge Harmon Conger
Judge Harmon S. Conger
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“Miss Lavinia Goodell & Miss Angie King have formed a partnership for the practice of law.”

“Miss Lavinia Goodell & Miss Angie King have formed a partnership for the practice of law.”

Janesville Gazette, February 1, 1879

Angie King kept busy during the 1870s by working in her brother’s bookstore and caring for her blind sister. At the same time, she studied law in the office of A.A. Jackson.  Along with Lavinia Goodell, she was also active in Janesville’s two literary societies, the Mutual Improvement Club and the Round Table. (Read more about the two clubs here.)

On January 10, 1879, Lavinia was present at the Rock County Courthouse when Angie and two men were examined for admission to the bar. While Lavinia found out that she passed her examination the same day it was given, Angie and the two male scholars had to wait three days to learn their fate. The Janesville Gazette reported, all three passed and “are now recognized as regular practicing attorneys.”

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