“Mrs. Bascom and her husband sympathized warmly with my effort to be admitted.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 20, 1875

Emma Bascom

Throughout her life, Lavinia Goodell cultivated a network of prominent people who championed her efforts to be admitted to the Wisconsin bar and supported, at least to some degree, her other varied causes, such as temperance and suffrage. While Lavinia welcomed their patronage, she sometimes thought that other women, particularly those married to distinguished and prosperous men, could have done much more to advance the cause of women’s rights but hung back due to concern of appearing “unwomanly.” At times this led to Lavinia feeling enormous frustration with her benefactors. Lavinia shared one such complicated relationship with Emma Bascom, the wife of the University of Wisconsin’s president.

Emma Curtiss Bascom was born in Massachusetts in 1828. She married her husband John, a professor at Williams College, in 1856. The Bascoms moved to Madison, Wisconsin in 1874 when John assumed the leadership of the University.

Like Lavinia Goodell, Emma Bascom was active in a variety of reform movements, including temperance and women’s suffrage. We do not know when the two women met, but Lavinia’s diary indicates that she spent time with Emma in Madison on December 14, 1875 when Attorney I.C. Sloan presented Lavinia’s first argument seeking her admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. (Learn more about Lavinia’s battle to be admitted to the court here.) The following day Lavinia noted, “Went with Mrs. Bascom to editor of State Journal & gave him my argument to print, which they are to do.”

On December 20, 1875, in a letter to her sister, Maria Frost,  Lavinia sang Emma Bascom’s praises:

After I had finished my business I visited Mrs. Bascom, the wife of the President of the State University, by invitation. She stands very high in society circles there and is an intelligent and cultured lady & in full sympathy with all the advance views of someone’s position. Takes the Woman’s Journal. She and her husband sympathized warmly with my effort to be admitted.

During the remaining four years of Lavinia’s life, she and Emma Bascom kept up a steady correspondence. When Lavinia travelled to Madison in February of 1877 to meet with legislators to discuss various bills she had drafted, she spent considerable time at the Bascom residence. Her February 5, 1877 diary entry noted, “Carriage ride from depot to Mrs. Bascom’s. Cordial welcome, and very pleasant evening chat with Mrs. B. before an open coal fire in her room. She is very congenial.”

In April of 1879, after Lavinia succeeded in having the law changed to make bar admission in Wisconsin gender neutral, she filed a second petition with the Wisconsin Supreme Court seeking admission to the supreme court bar. Her April 22, 1879 diary entry read, “Went before the Supreme Court and made my application for admittance. Mr. Sloan, Mrs. Bascom and friend there.”

Emma Bascom and Lavinia both attended the October 1879 women’s conference in Madison. (Read more about it here, here, and here.) In November 1879, Lavinia moved to Madison and set up a law practice there. On November 20 she wrote to her cousin, Sarah Thomas, “I haven’t seen Mrs. Bascom yet, only at a distance Sunday.”

By the following month, Lavinia’s health was rapidly failing and she seemed to be second guessing her abrupt decision to move to Madison. In a December 17 letter to Sarah Thomas, feeling sick and depressed, she vented her frustration at not being able to accomplish more for women’s rights and directed some of her anger at Mrs. Bascom:

I think Mrs. Bascom has treated me as meanly as Sullivan (one Lavinia’s criminal defendants) did & I haven’t one whit more respect for her than I have for him. They are both made out of the same dirt, & gathered from the same pile…. Mrs. Bascom knows I am working hard & self-sacrifisingly for the advancement of women & of humanity & yet, when I am willing to do the hard work & bear all the burden, & when she really sympathizes with my views in secret, she isn’t willing to run the risk of sacrificing a bit of her popularity by fellowshipping me; & she could do so much, so easily, & not hurt herself after all. If against all these odds, I should finally succeed she will be the first one to appear with her congratulations; if I fail she will wash her hands of me & say she never knew me.

In January 1880 Lavinia went to Milwaukee to seek treatment at a Turkish bath establishment. Her diary indicates that she sent a note to Emma Bascom on January 17, no doubt telling her of her declining health. Mrs. Bascom responded on February 4. Addressing Lavinia as “My very dear Friend,” she wrote:

It is with sincere grief that I have learned of your poor health and of your absence in Milwaukee. It has pained me that I have not been able to see you in Madison, or in any way show my warm friendship and high regard for you while you were a stranger in our midst. It has been in my heart to do so, my dear friend, and I hope on your return I may be able to see you often.

I wish to see you very much and learn about your prospects. This is such a conventional community that I fear you find your path a very rough and rugged one, and I wish most sincerely I could help you.

Mr. Bascom joins me in warmest regards and with most fervent wishes for your quick return to health and to Madison.

There is no indication that the two women communicated again. Within a week after receiving Emma Bascom’s letter Lavinia’s health had declined to the point that she was no longer able to write in her diary. She died in Milwaukee on March 31.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diaries; Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost (December 30, 1875); Lavinia Goodell letters to Sarah Thomas (November 20, 1879; December 17, 1879); Emma Bascom letter to Lavinia Goodell (February 4, 1880).

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