“To stifle the longings of an immortal soul to follow any useful calling in this life is a departure from the order of nature.”

Attorney Ada M. Bittenbender, writing about Lavinia Goodell

In 1891, eleven years after Lavinia Goodell’s death, Henry Holt published a book titled Woman’s Work in America.

Edited by Annie Nathan Meyer, founder of Barnard College, New York’s first liberal arts college for women, the book contained chapters on women in various professions. In the introduction, Julia Ward Howe (a writer, abolitionist, and suffragist best known for writing the Battle Hymn of the Republic) wrote, “The theory that women should not be workers is a corruption of the old aristocratic system.” Ms. Howe went to note that a speaker at a Massachusetts legislative hearing had recently asked why women did not enter the professions. Ms. Howe said, “One might ask how he could escape knowing that in all of these fields … women are doing laborious work and with excellent results?”  

Lavinia Goodell was featured prominently in Chapter nine of the book, “Women in Law.” The chapter was written by Ada M. Bittenbender, the first woman admitted to practice before the Nebraska Supreme Court and the third woman admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.

Ada Bittenbender

Ms. Bittenbender recounted Lavinia’s battle to be admitted to practice before the Wisconsin Supreme Court and quoted at length  Chief Justice Ryan’s opinion denying her petition. Ms. Bittenbender predicted that Ryan’s opinion “will be read with interest and remain of historic value as showing the fossilized misconceptions woman combated with in attaining the generally acceptable position in the legal profession in this country which she now holds.”

In response to C.J. Ryan’s comment that “It would be revolting to all female sense of the innocence and sanctity of their sex … that woman should be permitted to mix professionally in all the nastiness of the world which finds its way into courts of justice” Ms. Bittenbender retorted:

Ah, dear sir, it is largely to “mix professionally in all the nastiness of the world which finds its way into courts of justice,” that many, very many women seek admission to the bar. In every case involving any one of the “unclean issues” or “collateral questions” you have named, some woman must appear as complainant or defendant, or be in some way associated. What more proper, then, than that some other woman should be in court, clothed with legal power, to extend aid and protection, to her sister in trouble, that justice may be done her, and the coarse jest and cruel laugh, so proverbial in social impurity cases before woman’s advent as pleader, prevented!  

Ms. Bittenbender continued:

And we respectfully call upon the mothers of every land to see to it that in no instance in the future of the world shall a woman be summoned to the bar of justice as a party or witness in any case involving one of these “unclean issues” or “collateral questions” without being accompanied by one or more of her own sex of irreproachable character…. It is a duty, unquestionably, to be performed in the interest not only of one sex, but of mankind generally; for what affects one sex for good or evil, affects both.

While C.J. Ryan wrote that “nature destines and qualifies the female sex for the bearing and nature of the children of our race and for the custody of the homes of the world,” Ms. Bittenbender believed women could be both mothers and lawyers:

Experience has shown her able to perform these as the Father of the Universe and Mother Nature would have her, and still not to be precluded from giving the profession the necessary “devotion” to the end that it shall be “honorably filled and safely to society.” If “the law of nature destines and qualifies the female sex … for the custody of the homes of the world and their maintenance in love and honor,” as you say, Mr. Chief Justice, — we say “if” because we believe the male sex to be joint-heir, — that does not mean that all women, or any woman, should stay inside of four walls continually to cook, wash dishes, sweep, dust, make beds, wash, iron, sew, etc. Oh, no! … Instead of such “life-long callings of women” being “departures from the order of nature, and, when voluntary, treason against it,” as you think, Mr. Chief Justice, we hold that to stifle the longings of an immortal soul to follow any useful calling in this life, to be a “departure from the order of nature, and, when voluntary, treason against it.”

Ms. Bittenbender recognized that although women had made great strides in breaking into the legal profession, much more needed to be done. She concluded her chapter by saying, “Woman has made a fair beginning, and is determined to push on and upward, keeping pace with her brother along the way until, with him, she shall have finally reached the highest pinnacle of legal fame.” (Read Ms. Bittenbender’s entire chapter on women lawyers here.)

We suspect that Lavinia would have been flattered by Ms. Bittenbender’s praise and would have taken great delight in her pointed jabs at C.J. Ryan.

Sources consulted:  “Women in Law,” by Ada M. Bittenbender, Chapter IX in Woman’s Work in America, Annie Nathan Meyer, Ed. (Henry Holt, New York 1891); https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Bittenbender; https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/julia-ward-howe; https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/meyer-annie-nathan.


Beverly Wright

This brings a tear to my eye for a woman to have to struggle so hard to have a profession.

Bittenbender seems to echo Lavinia’s own words – where she does not outright plagiarize her. Better had she simply published Lavinia’s own response and made commentary upon it. Besides, it appears to me that Lavinia was the better writer.

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