“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

Harmon Conger was born in Cortland  County, New York in 1815. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1844.  For a time he edited the Cortland County Whig newspaper. In 1846 he was elected to Congress by the Whig convention. He came to Janesville in 1855. He was elected judge of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit in 1870 and continued in that role until  his death in 1882.

Lavinia first mentions Judge Conger in the summer of 1873, soon after she began going to court to observe the proceedings. On June 21, she wrote in her diary, “Judge Conger made acquaintance with me today and was very friendly.” The following week, Lavinia wrote to her sister Maria, “Have become some acquainted with Judge Conger, who is very polite and pleasant to me; complimented me on my courage in attending court and sitting through such dry and tedious proceedings.” The following month, the judge and his wife called at the Goodell’s home. Lavinia wrote Maria, “Judge Conger and wife called here last night. She looks about 60 years old, but is only 45. I like the judge first rate. Mrs. C. is a second wife.” Lavinia’s November 7, 1873 diary entry noted, “Went to court in morning. It rained and Judge Conger came home with me to give me the benefit of his umbrella.”

By early June of 1874, Lavinia was anxious to take the examination for bar admission but was unsure if the judge would allow it. On June 6, she wrote, “Got Judge Conger’s view today, which is noncommittal.” On June 18, the day after her successful examination, Lavinia wrote to Maria:

I had quite a scare about two weeks ago, by hearing that Judge Conger was going to rule me out on the ground of my sex. I delayed my application a little on the account, wrote in different directions for information, and studied up the subject, had an argument all prepared to fire off at him if necessary. I was all bristled up, and going to appeal, and make a fuss generally if I got refused. However it seems the judge studied up, too, and came to the conclusion that I could be legally admitted if I passed examination

Once she was a practicing attorney, Lavinia sometimes sought out Judge Conger’s advice about cases she was handling in other counties, including her prosecution of liquor sales in Jefferson County. (Read about them here and here.) Judge Conger was impressed with Lavinia’s success in the suits. On October 29, 1874, Lavinia wrote to Maria, “I have seen Judge Conger and he congratulated me on my success. Said he never saw a young practitioner do any better & seldom as well. I consider that very encouraging.” By 1875, the judge was appointing Lavinia to represent criminal defendants. (Read about that here.)

In late 1875, when Lavinia learned that the Wisconsin Supreme Court required her to apply for admission to appear before it because of her sex, Judge Conger encouraged her to put the high court through its paces. She noted, He made me happy by assuring me that I shouldn’t be disbarred if the Supr. Ct. didn’t admit me. He quite laughed at the idea of the old judges refusing me & advised me to go up there & face the music. Think I shall do so.” On December 20, 1875, while the Supreme Court was considering her application for admission, Lavinia assured her sister, “This will not affect my right to practice in the lower courts. Judge Conger will stand by me. He is my good friend.”

Despite their friendship, Judge Conger’s rulings sometimes frustrated Lavinia, none more so than his refusal to grant a divorce to a long suffering wife because had did not find that the husband’s treatment had been “cruel and inhuman.” (Read about that case here and here.) Lavinia wrote her cousin Sarah Thomas, “The decision surprised and outraged every unprejudiced person. Judge Conger is notoriously opposed to divorces and never will grant one when he can help it.” Shortly before Lavinia’s death, she received word that the Wisconsin Supreme Court had reversed her client’s criminal  conviction. The client’s mother wrote Lavinia, “I heard Judge Conger was raving mad so you may expect opposition.”

When Judge Conger died, two years after Lavinia’s death, the Janesville Gazette eulogized him:

Judge Conger was a ripe scholar, a well trained lawyer, and an honest man. He was free from obnoxious partisanship, and on the bench presided with ability and impartiality. He had an irreproachable pubic and private character, and a stern integrity and fidelity to principle which secured for him the confidence and deep esteem of the public. His death will be deeply mourned by the bar of the state.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diaries; Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Maria Frost (June 27, 1873; July 20, 1873; June 18, 1874; October 29, 1874; December 20, 1875; ); Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Sarah Thomas (February 4, 1876); Agnes Ingles letter to Lavinia Goodell (March 17, 1880); Janesville Gazette, October 23, 1882; Death of Harmon Conger, 60 Wis. Xli (1885).

1 comment

Had she lived, it might have been interesting to see how the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Judge Conger’s decision in the Ingles case might have affected both their personal and professional relationship. My guess is that Conger would have eventually gotten over it and admitted to admiring Lavinia’s legal abilities. Who knows? She might have become Wisconsin’s first female judge, too.

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