The death of Wisconsin’s 1st woman lawyer

Rhoda Lavinia Goodell (May 2, 1839-March 31, 1880)

In the early morning hours of March 31, 1880, Lavinia Goodell died in Milwaukee. She was just a month shy of her 41st birthday. Lavinia had left Janesville in November of 1879 and moved to Madison, setting up her law practice there. She went to Milwaukee in January 1880 to seek treatment for her rapidly declining health at a Turkish bath establishment. When that treatment failed, she was taken to a private residence where she spent her final days. Her cousin Sarah Thomas was with her when she died of ovarian cancer. (Her attending physician, Dr. Eugene F. Storke, listed the cause of death as “cystilies from paralysis of detrusor muscle.”) The Janesville Gazette wrote:

Our citizens will learn with pain the untimely death of Miss Lavinia Goodell. For two or three years past Miss Goodell had been in poor health, but on her return from the East several months ago, she seemed to have almost entirely recovered, and resumed the practice of law…. Miss Goodell was a woman of marked characteristics, of strong will power, and a close student. She studied law in Mr. A.A. Jackson’s office several years ago, was admitted to the bar of the Circuit Court, and after a severe struggle and much delay, was finally admitted to the Supreme Court of this State. She gained almost a national reputation by the manner in which she mastered her case before the Supreme Court, and was widely known by her many and able articles on woman’s rights which appeared in the leading journals of the East. The funeral will take place at the First Congregational church tomorrow at two o’clock.

The April 16, 1880 issue of Unity Magazine, published in Chicago, contained a touching memorial:

A little room we crave, dear Unity, for a tearful word in memory of a noble heart that has ceased to beat, a “fine soul” whose pleasure it was to serve even the least of us.

To those who only knew of her as “the woman lawyer” and the brave pioneer in the large land toward which so many of her sisters look with longing eyes, the news of her death brought gloom and sadness; for even though they could not sympathize with her aims, they must have honored the courage and firmness that enabled her to meet and overcome great obstacles.

But to those who had loved her as a friend – had felt the sympathetic clasp of her hand, so ready to help the helpless – listened to the clear, strong voice, so quick to speak on behalf of the weak – the tidings that the busy hand was cold and still, and the voice forever silenced, came like a sharp arrow, causing a wound the more grievous because ’tis so short a time since we had welcomed her back from the very boundaries of the silent land, from which she had returned by a painful and weary way.

Death had no terrors for her; but she must have realized more deeply than many of us “how beautiful it is to be alive,” and we had bid her Godspeed as she ventured forth once more upon the great sea of life, confident that she had a long and prosperous voyage before her and would anchor safely in one of the many harbours our Father hath prepared for us. Possessing manly courage of the best kind, and womanly tenderness of the purest, she gave to her work a wifely devotion and a motherly love.


Lavinia paved the way for generations of women lawyers in Wisconsin. On the anniversary of her death – and the last day of women’s history month – we honor her memory and give thanks for her pioneering efforts to promote equality and fair treatment for all. Studying her life has taught us a great deal. Although Lavinia was a very private person, we hope she would be pleased to know that her words and deeds still resonate today. May her ideals and her legacy continue to inspire generations to come.  NK

2 comments

Jennifer King

Thank you so much for this wonderful website! Lavinia is my 5th great aunt and I am so thankful that someone has made this tribute to her! It does my heart well! 🙂

Beverly Wright

The interesting life of a great lady!

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