“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

The article explained that after giving up her job at Harper’s and moving to Janesville, Wisconsin to care for her aged parents, “then arose the old longing to study law.” The writer explained, “Lavinia had long had a taste for legal reading, and displayed decided talent for transacting business, and in her early girlish days secretly thought that she would like to be a lawyer. But at that time such a career seemed impossible for her.” Once in Wisconsin, however, with her father’s encouragement, she began to study law in earnest and at the end of three years of study she “was examined, passed a brilliant examination, and was admitted.”

The article described Lavinia’s practice and her success in winning her first trial prosecuting liquor dealer. It then discussed her first attempt to be admitted in the Wisconsin Supreme Court and C.J. Ryan’s infamous opinion refusing to admit her because of her sex. The article went on to say:

This refusal to admit Miss Goodell to practice in the Supreme Court created much sensation, and was commented on by various newspapers in the country – mostly in the lady’s favor. She afterward reviewed the chief-justice’s opinion on her case in the Legal News (Chicago), and unquestionably had the better of him in the argument. She also prepared a bill and sent it to the State Legislature, providing that no person should be refused admission to the bar on account of sex. A petition asking for its passage was signed by the circuit judge and every member of the bar in the county, in such high esteem was Miss Goodell held by the lawyers of Janesville. The bill passed, although strongly contested by the Ryan party.

The author concluded:

Read the entire piece here.

The April 5, 1879 issue of the Woman’s Journal carried the Lippincott’s article in full and clearly stated its origin. As an interesting sidenote, a very lightly edited version of the article also appeared in Martha Rayne’s 1884 book titled “What Can a Woman Do; or, Her Position in the Business and Literary World.” Ms. Raynes gave no attribution to Lippincott’s.

Sources consulted: Lippincott’s Magazine (March 1879); Woman’s Journal, Vol. 10, No. 14, 3/4/79, seq. 116, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University;  Martha Louise Rayne, “What Can a Woman Do; or, Her Position in the Business and Literary World,”(F.B. Dickerson, Detroit, 1884).

1 comment

Beverly Wright

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”- slogan of the United Negro College Fund

My mother was one of nine women in her 1943 medical school class. Now, more than half of the graduates are women.

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