“My admission has created quite a little sensation here”

In 1874, a woman’s place was in the home. Most people (male and female) firmly believed that women shouldn’t even be allowed to vote.  By this point, only a few had taken a bar exam or received a law degree.  So Lavinia’s admission to the Rock County Circuit Court was truly extraordinary. She became a celebrity in Janesville, and the national press noticed. She also reportedly raised the bar for bar examinations!

The morning after she officially became a lawyer, Lavinia headed downtown to collect her certificate of admission, order business cards, and hunt for an office. Word of her feat had spread quickly, and folks were talking about it. Most women seemed “delighted and enthusiastic” over the news, though a few snubbed her. She described the range of reactions in her diary and a series of letters to her sister, Maria, and her cousin, Sarah:

My admittance has made quite a little sensation here. The officers of the court say I passed a much better examination than candidates usually do, and better than the young man examined at the same time. I have been receiving compliments and congratulations ever since, till I fear I am in danger of becoming “intoxicated with success.

Most of the prominent lawyers have extended the right hand of fellowship to me and welcome me to the profession. I sent you what the Gazette said. I like the law as well as ever, and expect to have a “jolly” time practicing. (1)

Janesville Gazette June 18, 1874, Lavinia Goodell's admission to practice
Janesville Gazette, June 18, 1874

Some of the men, Deacon [Eldred] for instance, are unable to see the matter in any other light than that of a good joke, but others, who know what’s what, look at it in a more rational light. (2)

I have always heard that women lost their charms when they went outside their spheres, and need not expect any more gallantry from men, but it seems to work the other way for me so far.

Mr. C.__, another lawyer, took me to supper and was delightfully devoted, and talked me up all around, especially to Mrs. L. who has a holy horror of me. Mr. C__ facetiously calls me his “sister in law,” and pretends to be dreadfully worried for fear I shall win all of my cases against him  . . .

Sheriff R and Alexander Graham take great delight in calling me “Squire.” (2)

I feel very much as if I have been married, receiving so many congratulations, and sending out cards. Don’t see but it is just as good! Think I stand quite as good a chance of future happiness and prosperity.(2)

Lavinia’s admission to the bar was such a marvel that the local and national press reported on it. The Indiana State Sentinel, the Alton Telegraph, the Miami Peru County Sentinel ran variations on this theme:

Miss Goodell, lately connected with Harper’s Bazar, has been admitted to the bar as a practicing attorney at Janesville, Wisconsin, after passing a very creditable examination. Miss Goodell is the first woman admitted to the bar in Wisconsin. (3)

The Woman’s Journal reported:

When Miss Goodell heard that the Judge was going to refuse her, she studied the point carefully, and was prepared for a contest but, fortunately, she did not need to engage in one, and can save her combativeness for her first case. Miss Goodell is the first woman ever admitted to the Bar in Wisconsin. We learn, on reliable authority, that Miss Peckham applied, passed a fine examination, but was refused on account of her sex. That was in Milwaukee, four or five years ago. The world moves. (4)

The Times foreshadowed (correctly): “If Miss Goodell has anything like the pluck and ability of her father, the members of the bar have no insignificant rival to contend with.” (5).

The Aurora Farmer and Mechanic published the most amusing notice:

Aurora Farmer and Mechanic, July 16, 1874, Lavinia Goodell's admission to the bar

Miss Goodell, of Janesville, Wis. has just been admitted to the bar of that State, which is a good deal better than visiting bars in company with crusaders or clamoring for women’s rights. (6).

A month after her admission, Lavinia took stock of all the attention:

I had no idea what effect my admission would have upon human nature and have been in a state of perfect curiosity to see whether I should be applauded or hissed.

So far, the hissing has been quite faint and the applause long and loud.

She also learned that her performance had possibly improved the profession! A young law student, anxious about his own examinations, called to consult her. She wrote:

[H]e heard that [my examination] was “awful severe,” that hitherto they have been quite light, but he fears my admission inaugurates a new era, and that hereafter candidates will have a harder road to travel. He did intend to be examined in the fall, but now fears he shall have to study all winter, and not get in until spring.

I think it pretty good if my admission raises the standard of scholarship.

Readers: Are you surprised that Lavinia was applauded more than hissed for her achievement? Would you guess that subsequent Rock County bar exams were as “severe” as hers, or were standards relaxed for the many young men who followed her? Post a comment and let us know. CB

Sources Consulted: (1) Lavinia Goodell letter to Maria Goodell Frost, June 22, 1874; (2) Maria Goodell Frost, Life of Lavinia Goodell (unpublished manuscript); (3) Indiana State Sentinel, Indianapolis, IN, July 7, 1874; Alton Telegraph, Alton, IL, July 9, 1874, Peru Miami County Sentinel, Peru, IN, July 30, 1874;  (4) Woman’s Journal, June 27, 1874; (5) Aurora Farmer and Mechanic, Aurora, IN, July 16, 1874; (6) Lavinia Goodell’s Diaries, June 17-26, 1874.

1 comment

I’m not surprised by more applause. There have always been a few hissers.
I would hope the standards made future bar exams in Rock County more “severe.” Looking forward to hearing more!

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