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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Nguyen

Honoring Janesville’s Lavinia Goodell

Story and Interviews by Teresa Nguyen

June, 2024



June 17th, 2024 marked the 150th Anniversary of Janesville’s Lavinia Goodell’s admission to practice law in Wisconsin.


Rhoda Lavinia Goodell was born in 1839 in Utica, New York to prominent abolitionist William Goodell. As a young adult, Lavinia worked at her father's newspaper.


Lavinia didn’t shy away from expressing intellectual views at a time when women were wholeheartedly discouraged from doing so. She shared her father’s views on the subject of slavery and, while studying at Brooklyn Heights Seminary, Lavinia wrote a paper called "The Responsibility of the North for Slavery" writing:


"The North being a majority have more power than the South...they are therefore responsible for slavery if their power is not exerted against it."

Civil War monument in front of Rock County Courthouse

As many New Yorkers did, she headed west to Wisconsin, arriving in Janesville not long after the Civil War, in 1871, and began to study law on her own, directed by local attorney A. A. Jackson.


On June 17th, 1874, Lavinia Goodell was admitted to the Rock County, Wisconsin bar, becoming the first woman to practice in the state! It was bold and brave for any woman to seek a male dominated profession in an era when women were mostly restricted to motherhood, domesticity and corsets.


Just a couple of years later, in 1876, Lavinia was flatly denied a petition to argue a case in front of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.


Chief Justice Edward Ryan wrote:


“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.”


Goodell attacked his response in both the local and national press, and drafted an argument to prohibit gender discrimination in the practice of law. Goodell lobbied for the male legislators and the male governor to pass and sign such a bill.


In her argument, Goodell pointed out that proper administration of justice “would be better promoted by the admission of women to the practice of law than by their exclusion” for several reasons:

1. A class of people cannot truly obtain justice in courts where its members are not represented.

2. The inclusion of women would result in a combination of “the peculiar delicacy, refinement and conscientiousness attributed to woman with the decision, firmness and vigor of men”

3. It was unfair to the community to curtail “free and wholesome competition of the best existing talent”

4. It was unjust to shut out anyone with ability and interest of a lucrative and honorary profession.


The bill, authorizing women to be admitted to the state bar, was finally passed in 1877. Goodell was admitted to practice before the Wisconsin Supreme Court on June 18, 1879.

In 1880, Goodell argued and won her first case, Ingalls v. State, just prior to her death from cancer at age 40.


The 150th Anniversary Celebration


To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lavinia Goodell becoming Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer, Gov. Tony Evers proclaimed June 17, 2024, as Wisconsin Women Lawyers Day.


A Janesville celebration on that same date at the Rock County Courthouse began with the crowd filing into Courtroom H. The long rows of seats filled quickly, including seating in the jury box. Attendees even lined the walls of the courtroom, standing behind and beside the seated audience.

The Master of Ceremonies was the Honorable Barbara W. McCrory, one of our own local trailblazers. Introductions were given by justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and descendants of Maria Goodell Frost, Lavinia’s sister.

We were reminded that Lavinia never married or had her own children as she diligently dedicated her entire life toward her goal of becoming an attorney and working to make a difference as a voice for the voiceless.


The room was filled with a who’s who of state and local celebrities in the fields of law and politics, plus local journalists, photographers and JATV Media Services was there to film the event.


The Honorable Jane Bucher, Green County Circuit Court gave an inspiring speech, speckled with humor yet with a serious message

A reenactment of Lavinia Goodell’s admission to practice law was written by Kyleigh Halfenger and Lavinia was played by the talented Sage Eckard-Lee.


Her sister, Maria, was played by local actor Deb Williamson, who has participated in the Milton House productions of “A Christmas Carol” for many years.


The announcer, who would occasionally narrate parts of Lavinia’s life or read actual headlines and snippets of news articles about Lavinia’s accomplishments, was played by the Honorable John Hyland, Dane County Circuit Court judge.


A wonderful and crowded reception followed at Genisa Wine Bar on Main Street with a buffet of delicious heavy hors d'oeuvres including cheese trays, fruits and vegetables, pizzas and artichoke skewers. People mingled, munched on the goodies, toasted with clinking wine glasses, networked and chatted excitedly about the evening. Finally, a speech was given by the lead woman who was behind organizing this event, Attorney Nancy Kopp.


Nancy Kopp

Wisconsin Supreme Court Commissioner Co-Founder of Lavinia Goodell Website


I first heard of Lavina in the 1970s, when I was working as a legal secretary here in Janesville. And I was surprised to learn that she was the first woman to practice law in Wisconsin. That was amazing to me!


A number of years later, when I went back to school, I wrote a college history paper about Lavinia. Lavinia Goodell and Angie King partnered and formed Wisconsin’s first all-female law firm. Angie King, who was the third woman attorney in Wisconsin, continued to practice law in Janesville after the partnership was dissolved just six months later (much to Lavinia’s relief).


I’ve been practicing law now for 40 years. During that time, I continued to be interested in Lavinia. I had a conversation with my friend Colleen Ball, an appellate lawyer for the Wisconsin State Public Defender. She said that she didn’t think that Lavinia got the historical recognition that she deserved, and asked if I wanted to help her do additional research about Lavinia.


One of Lavinia's relatives, Rachel Frost Starkey spoke of how Lavinia paved the way for the women in the family

And I said “Sure!”


In my mind I thought, “What else is out there?” I began to subscribe to various data bases, like newspapers.com and ancestry.com. I found Lavinia’s probate files, her parents’ probate files and even her mother’s guardianship files, because her mother had dementia. It was a treasure trove of information! I was hooked.


I quickly realized that there’s a lot that no one has seen. So much has been digitized now, but even 15 years ago, one couldn’t have easily found these documents and things. I went down a rabbit hole! And I’m still at it.


We got a grant from the Humanities Council and created a website dedicated to the history, life and work of Lavinia Goodell. I joined forces with Colleen Ball and I tracked down Lavinia’s living relatives and dug up all sorts of never-before-seen primary sources.

Attorney Colleen Ball

The website was a combination of our efforts including her descendants; Sarah Stamps, Beverly Wright and Steve Bates. The website is www.laviniagoodell.com and we also have a Facebook page now.


It occurred to me that this year was going to be the 150th anniversary of her admission to practice law in Wisconsin, and I wanted to do something. I still have friends and connections in Rock County and thought I’d do something small at the Rock County Courthouse. This turned into a much bigger event. It blossomed when others jumped on and said, “Well, I want to help with that!”


I was very pleased with how it all turned out!


Hon Barbara W. McCrory

Rock County Circuit Court Judge


In my speech at the beginning of this event, I said a quote from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, “Real change happens one step at a time.” And this clearly was the first step for women in Wisconsin to be lawyers.


As I think about it, what this woman accomplished, it’s amazing. What she did, especially for the underprivileged people, as well, is just fantastic. And we need more of it.


She really was on a mission and was not going to let anything deter her. If you know the story, she was admitted to practice in Rock County, but then she was turned away from the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Still, she said, “I’m not going to let that stop me.” She got the legislation changed and then she was back doing what she set out to do.


I can relate, from my own perspective, to some of her frustrations. There were times when I ran for county judge when some people would say, “Well, you do such a good job doing what you do, you should stay in that role.” That was a little frustrating for me. Plus, running for the position, in and of itself, was stepping out of my comfort zone. It’s hard to put yourself out there in the public eye, so that is a little bit difficult.


When I was elected, I had a litigator in front of me who actually said, “Well, the only reason YOU'RE here is because you’re a woman.” I was kind of shocked, like, “Okay!” Just having to deal with that…it’s interesting.


The fight for equality is something we’re always going to continue to have to do. It may not necessarily be fighting for a woman’s ability to do certain things, but the idea of achieving equality is continuing. We can’t just rest on our laurels.


Linda Reinhardt

Former President of Janesville League of Women Voters


I’d heard the story of Lavinia Goodell before and the fact that this is the 150th anniversary of her being able to practice law is really something.


I’m so impressed by the guest list of the people who are here; the Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, representatives from the Wisconsin Bar Association and the State Historical Society. I’m really impressed with the number of Goodell’s descendants who were at the event here!


It was very much worth attending. The speakers were excellent, they each had different points to make, standing on the shoulders of Lavinia Goodell, the impact that she has made on them and the struggle for women in the law profession.


It’s still a struggle. We haven’t got it all set; it’s going to always be a continuing fight.


Senator Tim Cullen

Former Majority Leader of the Wisconsin Senate


She was really quite a person. To have the strength that she had, with really no support system at all, is what I think is so impressive. She just charged on. Lavinia was going to do it!


I hadn’t realized that she died of cancer when she was only age 40. So, she accomplished all of that before the age of 40!


I was elected back in 1974 and the same day I got elected, the first woman ever was elected to the Wisconsin State Senate. That was Kate Morrison. She was an economics professor at UW-Platteville. But think about it. We were a state in 1848, women couldn’t vote until 1920, and it took all the way until 1974 before a woman got elected to the Wisconsin State Senate!

Kate Morrison

She was terrific. During her time as senator, Morrison made progress toward improving the status of women in Wisconsin. One of her greatest accomplishments was to help pass a “no-fault” divorce law. She also fought against efforts to weaken a gender equality bill that passed in 1975. She went on to work in government at the federal level.


I helped pass a bill that stated the assets of a home were equal, even if one spouse stayed home and the other worked outside the home for an income. It was determined that both were equal contributions to the home, and both spouses were equally entitled to the assets of that marriage. It took all the way until 1985 for that to happen. I was Majority Leader then. It was enjoyable, to say the least.


Both women and men need to keep up the fight. I have three stepdaughters and a daughter. They all have careers and are independent. I had always hoped that they’d be strong women and they are!


The Lavinia Goodell anniversary event was fantastic. If we could have had that in an arena with 2,000 people, it would have been great! I wish we could have packed more people in to see it, as it was well worth attending. The speakers were all terrific, not one of them went on too long and the actors were all talented, playing the parts of the people from Lavinia’s life. The woman who played Lavina was fantastic!


Actor Sage Eckard-Lee - playing Lavinia Goodell at the Rock County Courthouse

Sage Eckard-Lee

Actress/UW Madison Student


I did my first theater production when I was around 9, then again at age 11 and I’m just getting back into it. I just finished my freshman year of college and did a couple of shows so far.


My major is Music Performance, Viola. I also sing. But I like to dance and enjoy all things performance related.


My family has always been interested in history. Several years ago, my sister was creating an old-style silent film, so we were on the search for an old-fashioned car. We found a welcoming man in Orfordville who let us use his car. That was Rudy Kopp, Nancy’s father. My family then became close to her family.


Sage as Maria Photo by Sun Prairie Civic Theatre

Last fall, I was playing the role of Maria in “The Sound of Music” with the Sun Prairie Civic Theatre. Nancy came to the show and enjoyed my performance. She then told me about this upcoming project she was working on for Lavinia Goodell’s 150th anniversary and said, “I would love to have you involved if you would be willing to do it.”


I said, “Of course, that would be amazing!”


It was a little bit scary, because Lavinia is such a huge figure. I thought, “I don’t know if I can do that, she stands for so much!”


Local seamstress, and one of our actors in today’s event, Deb Williamson, made my outfit. Deb also acts in the annual Christmas Carol play at the Milton House.


Another reenactment with a different actor will be held on Aug. 8th at Old World Wisconsin in Eagle at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. during their “Kids Get in Free” week.


I really enjoyed this event. I’d love to do this again!

Sue Conley at Janesville's Town Square - Photo by Teresa Nguyen

Representative Sue Conley

Wisconsin State Assembly

 

I’ve known about Lavinia Goodell for a very long time. I helped to get her on the mural outside the courthouse and helped to get her “proper face” on the plaque that’s in the courthouse.


I just think it’s wonderful for all of us to get together to celebrate the first female attorney in Rock County. 150 years isn’t that long ago for such a change.


And only 12 years ago, Judge Barbara McCrory became the first woman to serve as a circuit court judge in Rock County! So, we just have to celebrate our strides and encourage and inspire others to keep going.


I enjoyed this event. It was great to hear excerpts from Lavinia’s letters and her diary and to know those were really her words and thoughts. It was inspiring!


Nancy Stabb

League of Women Voters Board Member

One of the things I loved about this evening was that Lavinia’s descendants were there in the courtroom.

 

Another important point made tonight by the speakers was how this job of getting gender parity for women is never finished. They spoke of how they themselves had faced barriers as they became attorneys. They spoke of the need to support the women and for the men to support them.


I thought that was great and the point was made that we just want the same opportunities. The job isn’t done yet, we don’t have it all figured out.

 

It was a wonderful event, a standing room only crowd, so that was very satisfying. A couple of the Goodell family members spoke to me afterwards telling me how much it meant to them that the community came out for this. They were very grateful. Of course, we’re all proud of Lavina and we don’t often think of her existing family, so that was really special.


Senator Mark Spreitzer

Wisconsin State Assembly


This was wonderful. It’s such a great celebration of someone who made history here in Rock County. Thinking about the role that women have played in “women’s firsts”, we know that this is not the only one. 150 years is something to celebrate!


Having so many of the Goodell family here in town for this, some who hadn’t even met each other, made this a kind of Goodell family reunion, which was pretty awesome.


A lot of my political mentors have been women, like Judy Robson, Janice Ringhand. I think seeing us get close to gender parity, particularly in the legal and political arenas, and seeing that six out of seven justices of the State Supreme Court are women, is just wonderful.


My mom was the breadwinner while I was growing up. She had a career and fought for women’s rights and raised me to understand the importance of that, so I’m happy to be here to support and celebrate this event.


 


“The night was truly inspirational. Lavinia Goodell was a trailblazer of her day, and her actions continue to have an impact today. She opened the door to equality in the law profession for countless women who would come after. She remains a point of encouragement and inspiration for many today.”

~ Milton House Museum Facebook Post


 

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