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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Another Time's Forgotten Space

In this week's Supreme Court election, both candidates were women. Although for 2,500 years artists depicted justice as a woman, real flesh-and-blood women were prohibited from the courts until comparatively recently.

Here, for example, is the opinion of Edward G. Ryan, who occupied Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson's current position during the 1870s, on whether women should be permitted to practice law in the state's highest court:

"We cannot but think the common law wise in excluding women from the profession of the law. The profession enters largely into the well-being of society; and to be honorably filled and safely to society, exacts the devotion of life. The law of nature destines and qualifies the female sex for the bearing and nurture of the children of our race, and for the custody of the homes of the world and their maintenance in love and honor. And all lifelong calling of women inconsistent with these radical and sacred duties of their sex, as is the profession of the law, are departures from the order of nature, and when voluntary, treason against it."

Ryan had a history of opposing women's rights, having adamantly opposed a proposal to give married women property rights long before, at the 1846 Constitutional Convention.

Writing for the court, it was presumably Ryan who found that, "in view of the uniform exclusion of females from the bar by the common law, and in the absence of any other evidence of legislative intent to require their admission" and because "there is nothing in the statutes of this state providing for the admission of females to the bar," women could not practice before the Supreme Court.

The attorney in the case, Lavinia Goodell of Janesville, responded to the decision by enlisting the support of John Cassoday, speaker of the State Assembly. He quickly introduced a bill explicitly providing that "no person shall be denied admission or license to practice as an attorney in any court of this state on account of sex." The bill became law on March 22, 1877, and when Goodell again applied to try her case before the Supreme Court, they admitted her -- with Ryan dissenting. The door cracked open slightly for women who wanted legal careers.

Perhaps neither Goodell nor Ryan could have imagined a day when the only candidates for the state Supreme Court would be female, or when the Chief Justice would be a woman. After all, it took another four decades for women even to obtain the right to vote in Wisconsin. Perhaps we have finally reached a point where candidates can be judged on their beliefs and values rather than on their gender.

You'll find other landmarks in the history of women's rights in Wisconsin discussed here.

:: Posted in Curiosities on April 4, 2007

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