“Mrs. Guernsey is a … woman’s rights woman.”

Lavinia Goodell, August 18, 1873

In addition to her good friend Mrs. Beale, Lavinia Goodell counted on Mrs. Orrin Guernsey to advance the cause of temperance and, to a lesser extent, women’s rights.

(Stock photo. Does not depict the members of Janesville’s LTU)

Sarah Cooley Guernsey was born in New Hampshire in 1821. At age seventeen she married Orrin Guernsey and in 1843 the couple and their children moved to Janesville. The Guernseys featured prominently in Janesville society. Mr. Guernsey was  twice elected to the Wisconsin legislature. In the 1860s, President Johnson appointed him a member of a commission that concluded treaties with the Sioux Indians. He served on the Janesville city council; was a member of the board of the directors for the institution for the blind; served on the board of the Madison Mutual Insurance Company; and was a founder of the Rock County Agricultural Society.

A 1920 retrospective of the Guernsey family stated that, “For 53 years Mrs. Guernsey lived in Janesville, always taking a strong part in all community activities. Education, temperance, and woman suffrage were all interesting to her.” Lavinia Goodell frequently expressed her frustration with the fact that Janesville women, including Mrs. Guernsey, were not willing to publicly voice support for women’s issues. A late July 1873 diary entry noted, “Ladies too painfully ‘womanly’ to do much, like Mrs. Guernsey.” But a few weeks later her impression of Mrs. G. had changed. She wrote to her cousin Sarah Thomas:

I am dying to see a sensible woman, and they don’t abound here…. I think nobody but [Mrs. Beale] and Mrs. Guernsey and I have the courage to speak in our ladies’ meetings. Isn’t it comical! Mrs. Guernsey is a Unitarian and, I have heard, a woman’s rights woman, tho I have had no conversation on the subject with her.

Along with Lavinia and Mrs. Beale, Mrs. Guernsey helped organize the Janesville Ladies Temperance Union in 1873. Part of the ladies’ strategy was to speak to tavern owners and educate them about the negative consequences that often flowed from men drinking too much liquor. On November 1, 1873, Lavinia noted in her diary, “In afternoon went with Mrs. Guernsey to visit Buckingham’s Saloon and remonstrate with him.” The Janesville Gazette reported on the meeting:

Two prominent members of the Ladies Temperance Union, Mrs. Guernsey and Miss Goodell, visited the Arcade saloon on Saturday afternoon and had a long talk with the proprietor on the impropriety of his ways. He was affected by the interview, but hasn’t yet closed up his establishment.

The following March, Lavinia wrote to her sister, “Mrs. Guernsey has had quite a spicy debate in the Gazette, lately, with several persons who did not sign their names on this topic.”

Mrs. Guernsey kicked off the debate with a letter in the March 7 Gazette explaining why she did not think the Janesville LTU should follow the lead of some temperance organizations in other states where the members would enter a saloon en masse, disrupt the owner’s business, and begin loudly praying that the saloon keeper would see the light and stop selling the devil’s brew. Mrs. Guernsey believed it was important to obey the law and allow tavern owners, who she acknowledged had the legal right to run their businesses, continue to do so until such time as the law changed to ban liquor sales. She asked, “Why should the law permit a mob of women to assail the proprietors and dispose them of their rights guaranteed by the same code or statutes to which we fly for protection whenever our civil rights are assailed?” She concluded by saying:

When Mrs. Guernsey wrote her letter it is doubtful that she thought she was throwing down the gauntlet and inviting Janesville citizens to take issue with her views, but that is what happened. The first anonymous letter appeared in the Gazette on March 9, taking the side of the temperance ladies who marched into saloons and prayed with and for the rum sellers. Mrs. Guernsey responded on March 11 by reiterating that “I think it is time to base our action upon principle; do right and take what comes of it whether it seems expedient or not.” This prompted two more anonymous letters taking Mrs. Guernsey to task for not engaging in more militant practices to stop the liquor trade. One of the writers suggested that only large groups of women would have the nerve to enter a saloon and no woman would dare venture alone into such an establishment. Mrs. G.’s dander was obviously up when she penned the letter that appeared in the March 14 Gazette. She chided the letter writers for being afraid to identify themselves:

She continued:

Why, the childish, insane argument that, because a woman has no voice in making liquor laws, that she should not be loyal to them is so outrageously absurd, that a young girl exclaims “that is too thin!” I claim that law is law, and that it is a dangerous precedent when we begin to discriminate which we may, or may not, obey….

I singly, and alone, would have no fears to meet any, or all of the saloon keepers in our city. Indeed, I have often wished that I might have that pleasure, in some comfortable place, where we might reason upon temperance, righteousness and everything that goes to make our republican institutions a verity – little doubting but that we should find many points of agreement…. Because liquor sellers transcend their privileges may Christians ignore their obligations? Can two wrongs make one right? No! is my hearty response.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diaries; Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Sarah Thomas (August 18, 1873); Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Maria Frost (February 19, 1874; March 16, 1874); Janesville Gazette (November 3, 1873; March 7-17, 1874; August 14, 1920)

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