“Little by little, but all the time, we are gaining essential rights.”

Woman’s Journal, March 1877

March 8 is Women’s History Day. By happy coincidence, March 8 is also the anniversary of the day that Wisconsin’s governor signed into law legislation drafted by Lavinia Goodell allowing women to practice law in the state.

After Lavinia’s petition to be allowed to practice before the Wisconsin Supreme Court was denied in early 1876 (read more about that here), Lavinia drafted legislation that permitted people of both genders to practice law. Her Janesville colleague John Cassoday , who was speaker of the assembly, introduced the bill for her. In early 1877, Lavinia took the train to Madison where Cassoday introduced her to legislators, although the meetings apparently got off to an inauspicious start. On February 6, Lavinia noted in her diary, “Spent a stupid afternoon in Cassoday’s room waiting for men to come to me and finally had  go to them.”

On February 6, 1877, Lavinia met with General David Atwood, the publisher of the Wisconsin State Journal.  Lavinia wrote that Atwood “promises to make favorable notice of my bills.” Atwood was true to his word. The February 8 issue of the State Journal contained a piece titled “Females as Attorneys.” It began:

We understand there is a bill before the Legislature providing for the admission as Attorneys in our courts, of females who shall pass a proper examination. This bill, as we are informed, is asked for by the Judge and Bar of the county of Rock. It is well known that our Supreme Court decided against the application of Miss Goodell to be admitted to practice in that court, during the past year. It is not necessary that we should say that we favor the passage of this bill.

Atwood continued:

It is not our purpose to advocate the propriety of women becoming lawyers; but we insist upon their right to do so if they desire; and that in law, there should be no difference made in favor of one sex over the other. . . . That some women would make good lawyers, we do not doubt; and such as desire to try it, and mix with the turmoils of the practice should be permitted to do it. . . . Entertaining these views, we trust the bill now pending before the Legislature, on this subject, will become a law, give equal chances to the sexes to become eminent at the bar, It may be the means of improving both sexes; and especially in improving the practice in our courts.

The March 24, 1877 issue of the Woman’s Journal contained a short piece written by Lavinia’s mentor Lucy Stone lauding the bill’s passage:

The Wisconsin Legislature has passed a law that no person shall be refused admission to the Bar on account of sex.

This statute grew out of the fact that Miss Lavinia Goodell, an Attorney at Law in Janesville, Wisconsin, had a case which was appealed to the Supreme Court. Judge Ryan, of the Supreme Bench, refused to allow Miss Goodell to follow her case into that court, and rendered the decision that a woman could not practice in any court in that State.

Accordingly, a petition signed by nearly every lawyer in that district, and by many other persons by whom Miss Goodell was deservedly held in high esteem, was sent to the legislature asking in substance that women may be admitted to the Bar, And now they gave a law that no person shall be refused admission to the Bar on account of sex.

So, little by little, but all the time, we are gaining essential rights.

The thousands of Wisconsin women lawyers who have followed Lavinia Goodell into practice stand on her shoulders and owe her a debt of gratitude.

Sources consulted: Woman’s Journal, Vol. 8, No. 8, 3/24/77, seq. 98, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe   Institute, Harvard University; Wisconsin State Journal (Feb. 8, 1877; March 6, 1877); Lavinia Goodell’s diary, February 5-8, 1877; https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS5033.

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