Introducing Lavinia Goodell’s digital biography

The first woman lawyer admitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court had to fight for that status, overcoming opposition from the most powerful legal figure in the state. Lavinia Goodell (1839-1880) was also one of the first female trial lawyers in the United States, a nationally-respected writer, a Vice President of the Association for the Advancement of Woman, a candidate for Janesville City Attorney, a successful lobbyist, a jail reformer, and a temperance advocate. Yet she is undeservedly obscure. Another woman’s likeness adorns her spot in books, on the web, and at the Rock County Courthouse. Lavinia Goodell: The Private Life and Public Trials of Wisconsin’s First Woman Lawyer aims to secure her rightful place in history.

Lavinia is best known for her 1875 battle with Chief Justice Edward Ryan, who denied her admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court solely because of her gender. He wrote:

The law of nature destines and qualifies the female sex for the bearing and nurture of the children of our race and for the custody of the homes of the world and their maintenance in love and honor. And all life-long callings of women, inconsistent with these radical and sacred duties of their sex, as is the profession of law, are departures from the order of nature; and when voluntary, treason against it.

Ryan crossed swords with the wrong woman. By this point, Lavinia was 35 years old. She had wanted to be an attorney—and not a wife—since she was a teenager. She assailed Ryan’s decision in the local and national press, drafted a bill to prohibit gender discrimination in the practice of law, lobbied male legislators to pass it and a male governor to sign it, moved again for admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, prevailed, argued her first case there and—just weeks before her death in 1880—won. She told her sister: “It was a pure woman’s victory!” She had no assistance from male attorneys.

The drama of Lavinia’s battle to open the Wisconsin bar to women is important to history, but there is much more to her life story. Hundreds of personal letters, years of daily diary entries, scores of publications, many pleadings and proposed laws all written by Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer have survived to this day.  They are a trove of primary sources that biographers dream of. Yet, unlike her contemporaries Belva Lockwood, Myra Bradwell and Clara Shortridge Foltz (see Sisters in Law page), Lavinia Goodell has no substantial biography.

After Lavinia’s death at 40, her grieving sister, Maria Goodell Frost, penned “Life of Lavinia Goodell.” In 2001, Mary Lahr Schier published Lavinia’s life story for juvenile readers. Neither work is nourished by the breadth of intimate primary sources that we have unearthed and transcribed. Like the handful of chapters or articles about her, these accounts skim or miss her early writings and her contributions to the campaign for women’s rights (especially suffrage), the temperance movement, and jail reform, not to mention her day-to-day work/life balance.

Some researchers might turn this bounty of information into a traditional, hardcover biography. That would be wonderful, but the time for Lavinia’s resurrection is now. She would have (in her words) “spicy” commentary on the #metoo! movement,  the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, women campaigning for the United States presidency, and—you can be sure—the 6 female justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2018-2019.

Lavinia was a prolific writer. She once penned 20 letters in a single day. (Trust us, brevity was not her strength.) She published many opinion pieces and often spoke on the issues of the day. We feel certain that she would have blogged, tweeted and posted her views on Facebook. So that’s how we will tell her story. Like writers who tweet or blog their novels, we will blog her biography.

Watch the Table of Contents in the sidebar expand as we post snapshots of Lavinia’s life, though not in chronological order. In one you might learn of her father’s delight at her birth. In others you will read about her thrill at seeing President Abraham Lincoln in New York City, her joy at becoming a lawyer, the stories behind her cases, her reflections on marriage and spinsterhood, her jail-house school, a speech she gave, her literary society, her face off with Edward Ryan, her agony in committing her mother to a mental institution, and her search for cures for her own fatal illness.  

There’s more. Much more. So, we hope that you’ll subscribe to our blog, Twitter or Facebook feed to read Lavinia Goodell: The Private Life and Public Trials of Wisconsin’s First Woman Lawyer. (The subscription icons are located in the footer.) We also hope that you will help us “crowd source” history. If you have information about Lavinia, her family, or her “sisters in law,” click “Contact Us” and send a bibliographic reference so that we can include it on  CB


[…] Legal Innovator awards.  This year, the Lifetime Innovator Award was posthumously awarded to Lavinia Goodell – and I mean really […]

I had thought the first female lawyer in Wisconsin was Belle Case LaFollette, wife of Fighting Bob. Thank you for setting me straight. It turns out Belle was the first woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law school, in 1885, five years after Lavina died.

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