“Do your part in the world’s work.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 1861

Lavinia Goodell had a strong work ethic and was rarely idle. In 1853, at age fourteen, she was already helping her father publish and distribute an anti-slavery publication and was very proud to report to her sister that after deducting the cost of ferry and stage expenses she had cleared over $7.00 for sixteen days of work and felt quite rich.

In 1861, Lavinia was twenty-two years old and was assisting her father in publishing the Principia, another anti-slavery paper.

In the December 7, 1861 issue she wrote a short piece titled “Labor the Duty of All,” which chided everyone “with stout bodies and active brains,” whether rich or poor, to put their talents to use. She said, “You owe that world your vigorous limbs and active muscles, your thinking brain, and beating heart, and if you withhold them, you are guilty!”

To the gentlemen, Lavinia said:

Why, what were you sent into the world for? To read the papers, go to dinner at certain periods, and sit around in big easy chairs, puffing cigars? A far nobler and happier life than yours, is that of the hod-carrier who toils early and late, and lives in two rooms of yonder tenement house. He does his share of the world’s work, while you are but a drone in the hive. Come! Stir around! Throw away your cigar, stretch your muscles and go hire out to a ship carpenter. You’ll be a wiser and happier man at the end of six months. Try it!

And to the ladies she offered this advice:

What are you doing? Going out for a promenade, and to find a cure for ennui? Go and engage yourself as teacher of an industrial school. You won’t find time hanging heavily on your hands, and you’ll find enough to interest and occupy your mind. What virtue is there in your father’s wealth, that it should exempt you from doing your duty to your fellow beings? What right have you to expend all your thought and time on self? Do your part in the world’s work, and you will find yourself ennobled and enriched to a degree that you could never otherwise have attained. If labor was pronounced as a curse, it often proves a blessing.  Come on, all! Roll up your sleeves, and take hold. In a world where so much is to be done, we can’t spare any of our hands!

Lavinia kept her own counsel. In late 1873, seven months before she was admitted to practice law, she described her demanding schedule to her sister and complained that young men who were aspiring lawyers got more favored treatment than she:

I don’t think anybody who stops to consider that I am keeping house, studying a profession, teaching Sunday school, secretary of the temperance union, treasurer of the benevolent society, a member of the woman’s board, and make my own clothes, need to be either greatly surprised or amused that I manage to “keep busy.” When a young man is studying a profession he is supposed to be doing something, if he isn’t doing anything else.

Even though she was often unwell, Lavinia maintained a demanding schedule until early 1880 when she went to Milwaukee to seek treatment for her advanced cancer. She died on March 21, 1880 at age forty.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost (November 18, 1873); “Labor the Duty of All,” published in the December 7, 1861 issue of The Principia.

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