“Your time could not have been improved to better advantage than by reading law.”

Lavinia Goodell, September 1875

In late summer 1875, a little over a year after she was admitted to practice law in Wisconsin, Lavinia Goodell penned an article that appeared in the September 4, 1975 Woman’s Journal titled “Shall Women Study Law?” Her conclusion was a resounding “yes.”

Lavinia’s article answered six questions about the feasibility of women studying law. The first was “Had I better study? Will it pay?” Lavinia encouraged everyone having a taste for legal study and the time to devote to it to by all means study. She said, “Should you never practice, or even never complete a full course of reading, … the information thus obtained will be invaluable to you and the mental discipline is worth solid gold.”

Second, in response to the question, “What previous education is necessary?” she replied, “The more the better.” While she said a collegiate course was desirable for someone who was young and could spare the time, it was not indispensable. She held the same view of Latin study. On the other hand, she deemed “a thorough mathematical course and good knowledge of history”  necessary and touted the benefits of being well read in literature, taking a metaphysical course, and studying logic and languages.

Third, Lavinia queried “Shall I commence with Blackstone, and is it better to go to a law school, study in an office, or read at home?” She admitted knowing “little or nothing of law schools,” and said a good legal education could be obtained outside of them. She recommended starting with Blackstone as well as reading the history of England or English law. She advised:

The student’s course should be directed by some good lawyer, to whom she can resort for advice and explanation when necessary; and, after a thorough course of reading is completed, she should serve an apprenticeship in a busy office, where she can learn all the details of practice, and should also sit through the trial of as many cases in court as possible.

Fourth, Lavinia asked, “Can a woman practice? Is it practicable?” Her answer: “very decidedly, it is practicable,” — assuming, of course, that a woman lived in a state that did not preclude her from entering the profession. She said, “Once admitted, there is nothing but prejudice in the way of successful practice for a suitably qualified woman. But prejudice is rapidly melting away.” She predicted that women clients “will seek refuge with an honest woman upon whose judgment and integrity they know they can rely. And, the ice once broken by a few carefully worked and successful cases, there is no further trouble in obtaining business.”

Fifth, “Is the court-room an improper place for women?” Lavinia said, “I have sat in court all day long, day after day and week after week, and have never seen or heard anything calculated to shock a woman of refinement, excepting the marvelous expectorations of tobacco juice, which I confess were somewhat of a surprise to me. I had no idea, before, of the wonderful capacity of the human system for generating saliva.” But she said her brethren were improving in that regard, and she believed she would live to see the day when spittoons were no longer present in the courtroom. She praised her brothers in law, saying she had their sincere respect and hearty goodwill and fellowship. “So, girls, do not be afraid of this ghost which the enemy have gotten up to frighten you. There is nothing more dangerous than a broomstick behind the white sheet!”

Finally, she asked “Is practice remunerative?” She candidly admitted the answer was “not immediately,”  for either men or women, “but for one who can afford to sink a few years in hard, patient, plodding work, I believe a successful future is in store.”

Read the entire piece here.

Sources consulted: “Shall Women Study Law?” published in Woman’s Journal, Vol. 6, No. 36, 9/4/75, seq. 287, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

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