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State's first female lawyer broke barriers and made history
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ON WISCONSIN | LAVINIA GOODELL

State's first female lawyer broke barriers and made history

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Lavinia Goodell

Steve Bates gets his first look at a document issued in 1879 that allowed Lavinia Goodell to practice before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Goodell's youngest nephew was Bates' great-grandfather. Bates was in Madison earlier this month for a ceremony at the State Bar of Wisconsin where the document was donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Lavinia Goodell was feisty and would have fit right in 100 years ago, when women were fighting for the right to vote.

The Janesville woman also would have been at home in the 1970s, during the rise of feminism and more recently as the Me Too movement helped push for social change.

But Goodell found her own way to enact change and did so in the 1870s by taking on the all-male establishment to solidify her place in Wisconsin history. In 1874, she became the first female lawyer in the state of Wisconsin when she was admitted to the Rock County Bar. She made further waves when, because she was a woman, she was denied the right to practice before the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1876. But Goodell persevered and in 1879 was granted the right to practice before the state’s highest court.

Today, five of the court’s seven justices are women, Goodell’s story has its own website, and earlier this month, the State Bar of Wisconsin posthumously awarded Goodell the Lifetime Legal Innovator award for leading the way in opening the practice of law to women.

In addition, the original document granting her the right to practice before the Supreme Court is no longer folded up and tucked away in a box in the home of a distant relative. It’s now in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society and includes a notation in red crayon made by the former Ambassador of Paraguay who was Goodell’s great-nephew.

The crayon note written by Wesley Frost reads “1st woman lawyer in Wis. (My g’mas sister).”

Lavinia Goodell

A document issued in 1879 from the state Supreme Court allowing Lavinia Goodell to practice before the court includes a note in red crayon written by a nephew. The document was long held by a distant relative who was unaware of its existence among Goodell's papers.

“Some people would say that (the crayon) sort of diminishes the certificate and from a purity of what the certificate represents that might be true. But it does add an element of character and it says something about the family and the legacy that this woman left,” said Simone Munson, collections development coordinator at the historical society.

“Her family was so proud of the fact that she was the first female lawyer in Wisconsin and that this (man) had so much pride in his great-aunt that he wrote on this item. Lavinia was definitely a pioneer in her field. She paved the way for all the women that came after her and that’s a really important legacy to leave behind.”

When Goodell died in 1880, her papers went to a number of family members before ultimately winding up with Beverly Wright, the daughter of Wesley Frost, the son of William Frost, who was Goodell’s nephew.

Lavinia Goodell

Colleen Ball, left, and Nancy Kopp, lawyers who have done extensive research on Lavinia Goodell and created a website documenting her history, with Steve Bates, whose great-grandfather was Goodell's youngest nephew. The trio attended a ceremony this month at the State Bar of Wisconsin in which the document allowing Goodell to practice before the state Supreme Court was donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Wright, who was unaware of the historic document, found the paper due to the urging of Colleen Ball and Nancy Kopp, a pair of Wisconsin attorneys who have done extensive research on Lavinia Goodell and have created a website that documents Goodell’s brief but accomplished life. The document was formally presented to the historical society earlier this month during a meeting of the State Bar of Wisconsin in Madison.

“She went back and forth on it and ultimately decided to donate it to the Wisconsin Historical Society,” Kopp said of Wright. “As far as we know, this is the only time it’s ever been seen in public and probably hasn’t been seen by anybody in decades.”

Abolitionist father

Steve Bates, whose great-grandfather was William Frost, learned of Lavinia in 1978. Bates, who at the time was the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, had come to Madison for a conference and made a side trip to Janesville to learn more about Lavinia’s father, William Goodell, who was a radical abolitionist, had written books about the subject in the 1840s and 1850s, and was editor of the Emancipator and several other magazines.

“Our whole focus has been on him and the anti-slavery and the abolitionist role of our family,” said Bates, who was in Madison this month for the State Bar meeting. “Discovering Lavinia adds a whole new dimension. To find that there was someone as involved in the law and using the law to make change I think is my big take away from it. Lavinia was a name in my family tree. I didn’t know that she had a tale to tell.”

Lavinia Goodell

Lavinia Goodell was interested in prison reform and free public libraries, was a teacher and in 1867 helped launch the magazine Harper's Bazaar, where she was an editorial writer in its New York office. When she was 32, she moved with her family to Janesville, where she became immersed in law.

That story is now being told by Kopp and Ball.

Kopp, 64, a state Supreme Court commissioner for 32 years, grew up in Rock County and learned about Goodell when she was a legal secretary in Janesville in the 1970s. She later went back to school and wrote a paper on Goodell and Angie King, who in 1879 formed what is believed to be the first all-female law firm in the state.

Ball, 57, lives in Wauwatosa, where she is a state public defender. She learned of Goodell in the 1990s when she was an attorney in downtown Milwaukee. In 2005, one of Ball’s daughters chose Goodell as the subject of a National History Day project and in 2018, Ball ran across her daughter’s materials when she was cleaning out a closet.

Ball knew Kopp had an interest in Goodell, and the two dove in by transcribing handwritten letters and a biography of Goodell written in cursive by her sister.

An obsession

“I did lot of transcribing, and Nancy’s a phenomenal researcher and dug up all sorts of stuff that no one has ever seen about Lavinia,” Ball said. “We both knew that this is a person that deserves a biography or, in my opinion, a multi-season Netflix series. I mean there’s that much material on her.”

“It sort of became an obsession for us,” Kopp said. “There were just so many aspects to her personality and she was a crusader in many respects.”

Lavinia Goodell

Lavinia Goodell began her law career in Janesville, but practiced for a time on Capitol Square in Madison.

The results of their research and a $10,000 grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council is the website www.laviniagoodell.com. The site, which launched in early November, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, chronicles Goodell’s life but is also an active blog in which new material will be added through November 2020.

It includes actual photographs of Goodell, who for years was depicted as someone else because a family member decades ago thought a picture of another woman they had submitted to Berea College was prettier. The research by Kopp and Ball included the use of Ancestry.com, online directories, skimming eight years of Janesville Gazettes, scouring the Wisconsin Historical Society and two trips to Berea College, where the Goodell family papers are archived.

“She was a very good writer,” Kopp said. “She was very witty and obviously very intelligent. I wish I could have met her because it think I would have liked her a lot.”

Taught herself law

Goodell was interested in prison reform and free public libraries, was a teacher and in 1867 helped launch Harper’s Bazaar, where she was an editorial writer in its New York office. When she was 32, she moved with her family to Janesville, where she was rejected as an apprentice at several law firms because she was a woman. She later taught herself law and in 1874 was granted permission to practice in Rock County, where in her first case she represented a group of temperance women.

A year later she wrote an article for Women’s Journal defending the right of women to practice law. Many, at the time, considered a courtroom an improper place for a woman.

“This is wickedly and absurdly untrue. 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,” Goodell wrote. “I had no idea, before, of the wonderful capacity of the human system for generating saliva.”

Lavinia Goodell

Lavinia Goodell has been for decades represented by the photo on the left. When a researcher in the 1950s asked for a photo of Goodell, a photo of another woman was submitted because "she was better looking." Goodell's actual photo is at right. 

Ahead of her time

But Goodell’s beliefs were challenged when she was retained to represent a widow in a probate matter. The case was eventually appealed to the state Supreme Court, but she was not allowed to argue the case. Chief Justice Edward Ryan, who was well known for his belief that a woman’s place was in the home, wrote the opinion denying Goodell entry, citing “the peculiar qualities of womanhood.”

“It is public policy to provide for the sex, not for its superfluous members; and not to tempt women from the proper duties of their sex by opening to them duties peculiar to ours,” he wrote. “There are many employments in life not unfit for female character. The profession of law is surely not one of these.”

Lavinia Goodell

A copy of Lavinia Goodell's business listing in a Madison directory shows she practiced Downtown. 

Undeterred, Goodell lobbied state legislators who passed a bill prohibiting gender-based denial of bar admissions. It was signed into law by Gov. Harrison Ludington on March 22, 1877. Her second application to appear before the state Supreme Court was approved in June 1879, but Goodell died in March 1880 in Milwaukee at the age of 40 from what was believed to have been complications from an ovarian tumor.

“She was steeped into the whole business of equal rights even before the Civil War,” Ball said “It’s exciting to see what she was doing, but at the same time you can’t help but note that she’s fighting for things that people are still talking about today in terms of equality for women.”

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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