Lavinia Goodell was Wisconsin's first female lawyer. A reformer, activist and writer, Goodell challenged the prevailing attitude about the proper role of women and fought her exclusion from admission to the state bar. Three years and an act of the Legislature later, Goodell was finally admitted to the bar, an act that granted official recognition to her professional status and acknowledged her contributions to women everywhere.
Rhoda Lavinia Goodell was born in Utica, New York, on May 2, 1839. The daughter of prominent abolitionist William Goodell, she grew up in a world shaped by evangelical fervor and reform movements, primarily abolition, temperance and women's rights. In 1852 the family moved to Brooklyn, where Goodell learned editing skills by working alongside her father, editor of the antislavery paper, at The Principia, and later on her own at Harper's.
Goodell moved to Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1871, following her parents who had gone there the year before to be closer to their youngest daughter. Because no law firm would take her under its wing, Goodell began to study law on her own, gradually making a place for herself as a copyist in the firm of Jackson and Norcross. Goodell had first expressed an interest in the law in 1858, the year she graduated from a ladies' seminary — an extraordinary thought for the time as it would be another 11 years before the first woman was admitted to the bar in the U.S.
Goodell's dedication to her studies won over one of the firm's partners, Pliny Norcross, who helped her win admission to the Rock County bar in 1874. Admission to the Wisconsin bar, then as now, came by order of a judge after the applicant's legal knowledge and moral character had been thoroughly examined. While Circuit Judge Herman Conger had his doubts about Goodell based on her gender, he could find no legal impediment to her admission.
Goodell began her private practice by doing collection work, but she was soon hired by temperance women from Fort Atkinson to prosecute two liquor dealers. She won the case and the first appeal, though the conviction was ultimately overturned on a technicality. Despite her eventual loss, Goodell's impressive performance led women's groups throughout Wisconsin to hire her.
It was not until Goodell found it necessary to appeal a case to the State Supreme Court that her gender became a real issue. Customarily, the Supreme Court granted the right to practice before it upon admission to any circuit court bar. But, being a woman, Goodell's petition for admission to the court in 1875 was not so straightforward.
Goodell's petition was denied in February of 1876. Writing for the court, Chief Justice Edward G. Ryan expressed his outrage at her petition, describing at length why women were not suited to practice law. Ryan had a history of opposing women's rights, having adamantly criticized the provision giving married women property rights at the 1846 constitutional convention.
One of Goodell's staunchest supporters was John Cassoday, Speaker of the State Assembly, who, soon after her application was denied, introduced a bill explicitly allowing women to be admitted to the bar. The bill passed and became law on March 22, 1877. Two years later, in 1879, Goodell renewed her application to the Supreme Court and was admitted over the protests of Justice Ryan, who continued to argue that the court held absolute power over the bar.
On March 31, 1880, Goodell died of cancer, only a few weeks after learning that she had won her first case before the State Supreme Court.