“Next Sunday, Mrs. Van Cott again.”

Lavinia Goodell, July 13, 1873

Lavinia Goodell championed the right of all women to enter the profession of their choice. She believed that by developing their minds, women would be able to support themselves financial and  potentially avoid the need to embark upon a loveless marriage solely for economic reasons. She strongly supported women entering the clergy, a notion that was anathema even to some otherwise progressive nineteenth century men.  

Lavinia made a point of going to hear women lecturers who came to Janesville, Wisconsin. In the summer of 1873, she went to several lectures given by Maggie Van Cott, the first woman licensed to preach in the Methodist Episcopal church.

Maggie Van Cott

Maggie Newton was born in New York City in 1830. In 1848 she married Peter Van Cott and was involved in her husband’s pharmaceutical business. When her husband died in 1866, she joined the Methodist Episcopal church and thereafter devoted her life to evangelical work. She soon gained success as a speaker and in 1869 was granted a local preacher’s license in New York. She began travelling all over the country. It was said that by her 50th birthday she had travelled over 140,000 miles, held nearly 10,000 revival meetings, and given over 4,000 sermons.

In 1873 Van Cott’s travels took her to Janesville, Wisconsin on two occasions.  In May, 1873, Van Cott spent two weeks in the city, and Lavinia heard her speak multiple times. Lavinia’s diary entries indicate that she was impressed. “Went to hear Mrs. Van Cott in the evening. Like her. She is eloquent but not cultured; very earnest.” “Went to church three times to hear Mrs. Van Cott. Our church was crowded each time, very interesting meetings. She is a wonderful woman.” “Went to hear Mrs. Van Cott in evening, a large audience and superior sermon text ‘I shall be satisfied.’  She was witty and eloquent.” “Went three times to hear Mrs. Van Cott; crowded audiences! She is a powerful woman. I think she grows upon one and we all like her more and more.”

Lavinia wrote about Van Cott’s visit in an article titled “Women Waking up in Wisconsin” which was  published in the August 16, 1873 Woman’s Journal:

In May came Mrs. Van Cott, the eloquent Methodist revivalist, against whom there existed a strong prejudice among many of the “first” ladies of Janesville, previous to her arrival. During the two weeks of her stay here a powerful revival took place, and her converts were not only converted to a more earnest spiritual life, but to faith in the propriety of Woman’s preaching. Among these converts were gamblers, drinkers, some of the most depraved men; but as a lady wittily remarked, the most remarkable conversion under her ministry was that of Rev. Dr. __who had formerly been bitterly opposed to women “haranguing in public,” as he termed it, but who was much pleased with Mrs. Van Cott, and heartily cooperated with her in her labors. The Congregational Church (being the largest in town) was given up to her use while she was here, and a dense crowd assembled in its large audience room every evening, to listen to her eloquent and persuasive, womanly words. At the end of the two weeks I think she was the most popular woman in town, ladies and gentlemen of every denomination and no denomination joining in the throng of her admirers. Since her visit here I don’t think I have heard a word about the “unwomanliness” of public speaking, that bulwark of ancient prejudice is swept away.

Van Cott returned to Janesville in July, 1873. The Janesville Gazette complimented her oratorical skills.

Janesville Gazette, July 21, 1873

Lavinia was similarly impressed, writing to her sister:

Mrs. Van Cott was here. We all turned out to hear her last Sat. eve, and I went to four services Sunday,… Our parents went to two. Mrs. V. was as fresh and enthusiastic as ever. It is wonderful what health she has. Monday she left. Her daughter was with her and they were going to the Mammoth Cave, Ky., and then to the Pacific coast.

Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost, July 20, 1873

Van Cott lived to the ripe old age of 84, dying in Catskill, New York in 1914.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diaries (May 12, 1873; May 18, 1873; May 20, 1873; May 25, 1873; )  Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Sarah Thomas (July 13, 1873); Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost (July 20, 1873); “Women Waking Up in Wisconsin,” article by Lavinia Goodell published in the Woman’s Journal, vol. 4. No. 33, August 16, 1873, seq. 264 Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University; Rev. John O. foster, The Life and Labors of Mrs. Maggie Newton Van Cott, (Hitchcock & Walden, Cincinnati, Ohio 1872); Janesville Gazette (July 21, 1873).

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