No Peace for Courts and Legislatures!

In February 1875, Chief Justice Edward Ryan ruled that Lavinia Goodell could not argue cases to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The legal profession was no place for pure and delicate women, he reasoned. Lavinia wrote a lengthy rebuttal, which was published around the country. Ryan’s decision was so sexist that even 145 years ago, the press poked fun at him. One commentator called him more tyrannical than Russia’s Czar!

Chief Justice Edward Ryan and Czar Alexander II
Chief Justice Edward Ryan and Czar Alexander II

Lavinia’s full rebuttal (wonderfully droll) is available here.  She began by exposing many errors in Ryan’s analysis of the Wisconsin statute governing the admission of lawyers to the bar. Then she turned to his “societal” reasons for blocking women from the legal profession.

Ryan declared that if women were allowed to be lawyers, they might never marry, and society would crumble. Lavinia replied: “What honorable and self-respecting man would wish to marry a woman who would never have consented to marriage if she had been allowed a successful, professional career?” Let Woman be as independent of matrimony as man, she said. Then, if the man cannot induce her to marry him “let him conclude the fault is in himself, and proceed to render himself more worthy of her.”

Ryan contended that “admitting Woman to the bar is forcing her into a profession against her Will for which she is utterly unfitted.” Lavinia countered: “No law exists to prevent women from being hod-carriers, and yet women do not become hod-carriers.” If women aren’t suited to practice law, let them find out for themselves.

But tell them they shall not practice, and there is nothing on earth they want to do so much; and rest assured they will give the Courts and Legislatures no peace until they are accorded that opportunity.

Ryan said that courts deal with matters too coarse, brutal, and repulsive for holy, refined and pure women to hear. Indeed, Lavinia’s presence in the courtroom had prevented him from using a “smutty” illustration to demonstrate a point of law.

If so, Lavinia replied, it’s a good thing she was in court that day. This is another excellent reason to admit women to the bar!

And to Ryan’s assertion that women who become lawyers commit “treason against nature,” Lavinia declared:

If nature has built up barriers to keep Woman out of the legal profession, be assured she will stay out; but if nature has built no such barriers, in vain shall men build them, for they will certainly be overthrown.

The Janesville Gazette, Lavinia’s hometown newspaper, commented on Ryan’s decision and republished articles from other papers. One said: “Justice Ryan’s opinion is anything but complimentary to the female sex, and in fact is a libel on the character of women.” Another said:

Chief Justice Ryan of the Supreme Court is having a hard time of it since his decision in Miss Goodell’s case. That a woman can’t maintain her “peculiar qualities or preserve her purity,” if allowed to practice law before the Supreme Court, is a rough reflection on that Court.

The London American Register published an op-ed saying that Lavinia “intelligently chose law instead of wedlock in her life work.” It predicted that the first woman lawyer or preacher who amassed $600,000 as Charlotte Cushman did in the “histrionic art” (i.e. acting) “will have proof of her fitness for her work, as well as her shrewdness as a financier.”

The Chicago Legal News thought the decision so absurd that it would hasten the day when women could practice law and vote.

The Janesvillle Gazette published the most amusing commentary–allegedly from St. Petersburg, Russia, where Czar Alexander II also opposed the idea of women lawyers:

Chief Justice Ryan’s Echo

St. Petersburg, February 10. An official ukase has been issued, forbidding women from exercising the function of barristers.

Chief Justice Ryan has a counterpart after all. It is the Czar of Russia. He is opposed to women lawyers too. Wonder if he waited to see what Ryan would do before venturing to issue so arbitrary a ukase? If “the land of the free and the home of the brave” can forbid women to practice law, the autocrat of all the Russias need no longer hesitate. Bravo, heroic Ryan, for setting an example of tyranny to the Russian Czar!


Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell, “Should Women Practice Law in Wisconsin,” Woman’s Journal, Vol 7, No. 17, 4/22/76; Janesville Gazette, 2/16/76, 2/18/76, 2/26/76; London American Register, 3/25/76; Chicago Legal News, 3/11/76.

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