“Went to inquire about Lily Peckham.”

Lavinia Goodell, June 3, 1874

In the weeks leading up to Lavinia Goodell’s admission to practice law in Rock County, Wisconsin circuit court, she had begun to despair whether she would ever get the opportunity to take the bar examination. The lawyer who was supposed to move her admission seemed to be dragging his feet, and no one knew whether the judge would allow a woman to take the exam. (Read more about all that here.) In her efforts to get the chance to be examined, Lavinia mustered all the ammunition she could. Her June 3, 1874 diary entry noted that she first went to see a Mrs. Newman (according to the 1876 Janesville city directory, Mrs. Newman was possibly a Janesville dentist’s wife) and then wrote to the Milwaukee County circuit court clerk to “inquire about Lily Peckham,” a young woman who, according to some accounts, had briefly practiced law in Milwaukee prior to dying in 1871 at age 28.

Elizabeth (Lily) Peckham’s grave, Forest Home Cemetery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

We do not have the Milwaukee clerk’s response, but there is no record that Lily Peckham ever asked the Milwaukee court to admit her to practice law. In fact, finding any information about Peckham is a challenge. The problem starts with her name. While her birth name was Elizabeth, contemporary sources alternately referred to her as Lily, Lilly, Lillie, Lila, Lilia, and Lillian.  Through a great deal of persistence and a little luck (a helpful hint to all historical researchers: always try multiple spellings of names), we have been able to piece together parts of Peckham’s biography. She was clearly an intelligent and able young woman who accomplished a great deal in her short life – although it is unclear whether she ever practiced law.

Peckham was born in 1843 in Albany, New York and moved to Wisconsin as a child. Her father, George W. Peckham, was a lawyer in Milwaukee. Her brother – also George W. – graduated from Albany Law School and practiced law for a short time before going to medical school. Lily apparently attended the University of Wisconsin for one year. It appears that brother George was a lifelong proponent of women’s rights, and in February 1869, Lily and George attended  a woman’s rights convention in Milwaukee. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were featured speakers. 26-year-old Lily also gave a lengthy address calling for women’s suffrage. She said:

I feel that the suffrage will have a vast influence on woman’s pay and work. The contemptuous estimate of her intellect which places her on our statute books on a level with idiots, stigmatizing her by denying what is given to the most ignorant and lowest men is the same cause which underlies her insufficient wages. The proximate cause is excessive competition among the many competing in the few avenues open to women. But if she had been considered competent for the liberal professions and paying trades, in short, if as our brave Margaret Fuller, woman could have been a sea captain, if she would, could there ever have been such ruinous competition? A man starting in life has the world of work to choose from – if excessive competition, lower wages in one direction, he can work in some other, his ability, mental and physical being adapted. But woman having so few places to choose from, no alternative to turn to, must take what she can get, and work at starvation prices.

The Daily Milwaukee News reported that Lily’s essay “was well received.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton called Lily and her brother “young law students of great promise,” so Lily must have expressed an intention to enter the profession, and she said Lily’s speech “shows that a woman will find in her a powerful advocate in our courts of justice.”

In May 1869 Lily spoke at a New York convention. One commentator described her appearance as “realizing one’s idea of a minister’s wife” and said she “seems possessed of considerable executive ability.” In March 1870, Lappin’s Hall in Janesville, Wisconsin hosted a woman’s right convention. Admission to the event was free, with the exception of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s talk, for which tickets were fifty cents.

March 11, 1870 Janesville Gazette

Lily Peckham was elected president of the convention. Mrs. Orrin Guernsey, who became a friend of Lavinia Goodell a few years later, read an opening poem, after which Lily delivered a speech. The  Janesville Gazette said she “spoke fluently and well” and that “a marked improvement is discernible in this lady’s manner of speaking since a year ago and if she perseveres she will doubtless soon overcome her remaining oratorical faults.” Lily’s lecture focused on the fact that although the Wisconsin Constitution was amended in 1867 to open the University to female as well as male students, the courses offered to women were in no way equal to those available to men. She said, “With such a college course a degree means nothing, and only serves to cheapen what may be well earned by the young men of the college.”

The “separate but unequal” coursework available to women may have been the reason that Lily Peckham attended only one year of college. A subsequent post will discuss the remainder of her life, which included a great deal of writing and speaking, perhaps a very short stint working in the legal field, and an abrupt change of profession.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diary (June 3, 1874); Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Vol. II (2000); History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. III (edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, 1887); Daily Milwaukee News (February 26, 1869); Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette (May 19, 1869); Janesville Gazette (March 11, 1870, March 18, 18, 1870); https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/136833843:60525?ssrc=pt&tid=22761204&pid=1532580878

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