Sunday, August 10, 2008

Notes on a Strong Minded Woman

Last week a friend from the Rock County Historical Society asked me to join with several other people who would present the lives of some Janesville women who had made significant contributions to a group assembled for lunch. She asked me to prepare a short presentation about the life of Wisconsin's first female lawyer, Lavinia Goodell. I had not heard of her, but my husband had. In the courthouse where he used to work, there is a plaque dedicated to Goodell. So, I went to the Goodwill to get a black blouse and long black skirt, and to the library to information. My first version was too long, but I think now it's short enough to not put people to sleep. This is what I plan to present:

Despite a black skirt and blouse and my great grandmother’s cameo, nobody would ever mistake me for “Vinnie” Goodell. Rhoda Lavinia Goodell was tiny, barely 100 pounds. She wore her hair in ringlets, and had blue eyes. Despite our differences, I believe I can present you with a picture of this strong-minded woman, share some of her accomplishments. I will do what she did - I’ll read from prepared notes. She routinely read her speeches because, being a lawyer, she wanted to get her facts straight.

Thank you for allowing me to speak to you today. It gratifies me to know that in the 128 years since my death, community spirit and a desire to help people lives on in Janesville.

I was born in Utica, New York in 1839. When I was a child my parents instilled in me a strong sense of human rights. Our family dinner plates had quotations from the Declaration of Independence inscribed upon them, so that even as a small girl I learned by heart the principals of equal rights as I ate my daily bread. Our family’s meals included neither wine nor beer, since those strong drinks so often led to poverty and violence in families.

As a teenager I began to dream of being a lawyer. I wrote to my older sister that I thought the study of law would be pleasant. Maria was not supportive however. She called my goal “vain.” Later on I learned that my sister was not alone in this view.

I had other jobs before I became a lawyer. I helped edit my father’s abolitionist newspaper, I wrote articles about social issues for the new magazine Harper’s Bazaar, and I tried teaching. None of these jobs proved to be my real life’s work.

In 1871, my parents moved West to Janesville to join my sister, who by then had married. The following year when I was 32 I joined them . In 1871 Janesville had only been settled for thirty years. There were 8,700 residents, and the city was prosperous. Stores and businesses lined the Rock River and there was a fine new courthouse on the hill. There were twenty lawyers in town - all male. Twenty lawyers, and at least as many saloons.

At first I spent my time helping my parents, I attended church and taught Sunday School, and I went to Temperance meetings with my friend, Dorcas Beale. At that time while many Janesville residents felt that alcohol brought social evils, others were not opposed to strong drink. Once Dorcas and I were involved in organizing a large women’s temperance meeting to convince the city council that we needed to limit the number of alcohol licenses issued. Two hundred ladies met at the Opera house and organized a petition drive. When the the council met the next night we presented the results - 1,250 ladies’ signatures opposing new licenses. We did not sway the council. “If those 1,250 ladies’ names had represented 1,250 ballots, I reckon those licenses would not have been granted.”

Henry David Thoreau said that if one dreams a castle in the air, one is obliged to build a foundation under it. I realized that I needed to do more than sign petitions and attend meetings. I began to study law on my own.

I started going to the courthouse to watch trials. No doubt people thought this a strange behavior for a woman, but since I had no alarming eccentricities, other than a taste for legal studies, and since I wore fashionable clothes, attended church, had a class in Sunday School, since I made cakes and preserves like other women, I was tolerated.

Back then, lawyers often hired boys as clerks, but when I applied for similar positions I was turned down. Until I met Pliney Norcross. Pliney took a chance on me, after he decided that I was serious. His partner, A.A. Jackson was less supportive. While I was a clerk in that law office I decided I wanted to take the bar examination. A potential lawyer needed to be sponsored, and with some trepidation, Pliney Norcross sponsored me. He arranged for Judge Conger to oversee my exam. Conger was not sure it was legal for a woman to be a lawyer, but he was a friend of my family, so he allowed me to try. I was grilled for over an hour by three lawyers, and required to write out a legal paper. I passed the examination- at last I was a lawyer!

Father offered to pay my license fees, but Mother was less enthusiastic. She encouraged me not to start my own law practice. I opened an office, though I refused to furnish it with a spittoon.

My practice grew, and I found myself representing people other lawyers would not help, especially married women, whom the law treated poorly.

A turning point in my career came in 1874 when I represented a doctor’s widow, a Mrs. Burrington, against Sara Lu Tyler. Tyler had been raised by the doctor’s family. When he died, Tyler sued the estate, saying she had been essentially a servant in the household, and deserved payment for years of work. Mrs. Burrington insisted that the girl had been raised as a daughter, asked to do no more in than any daughter might be asked to do. The jury found in favor of Miss Tyler, probably because she was pretty and young. When Mrs. Burrington appealed, I expected to represent her Supreme Court in Madison.

In 1875, any male lawyer who was allowed to practice in a local court was also allowed to practice before the Supreme Court. But there was a problem. Chief Justice Edward Ryan strenuously objected to “strong-minded women.” Justice Ryan was well-respected, and one of the men who wrote the state constitution. But he believed that God and nature made men and women for different jobs, and that a woman’s place was to care for her home and children. I considered him to be an old fogy. The supreme court held a hearing, and a Madison attorney presented my arguments. First, the law did not say that a woman could NOT be a lawyer; the law said a PERSON when referring to lawyers. Second, it was a matter of fairness. The courts were created to bring justice and fairness to all citizens. Could women expect fairness from a court that excluded them? My final argument was that other states already permitted women to practice law at every level. Missouri, Iowa, Michigan and Maine, even the District of Columbia gave unmarried women the right to practice law

My hopes were high, but six weeks later the judges ruled that women could NOT practice law before the supreme court. Judge Ryan wrote that the use of the word “persons” implied that women could be lawyers. If the state’s laws were interpreted in that way, then women could vote, could be elected to office, and could pursue all of the businesses men were allowed to persue. He said that women should raise their families and work at home, and anything else would “tempt them from the proper duties of their sex.” Furthermore, the courtroom was not a fit place for women, because trials often deal with subjects that are “coarse, and brutal, repulsive and obscene.” Finally Judge Ryan said that if progress would naturally lead to more opportunities for women, “we will take no voluntary part in bringing them about.”

After the supreme court denied my petition, I was heartsick. Judge Conger, assured me that I could practice law here, so I threw myself into my work. I continued to write articles, to give speeches on temperance and on women’s rights, and to defend women, winning and losing some cases. I also did what I could for the men in our prisons and jails, and I believe I helped some of them to live better lives. The letters of gratitude they wrote to me gave me the encouragement I needed at this difficult time.

In 1877 I introduced eight bills for new laws to the Wisconsin Assembly, including one that allowed women to practice law before every court in the state, including the supreme court. I asked Assemblyman John Cassody, a Janesville lawyer, and speaker of the assembly to introduce my bill. I circulated petitions, wrote letters and met with several members of the Judiciary Committee. Some of the lawmakers privately told me they supported my cause but feared that if my bill was passed it might harm Judge Ryan’s health, perhaps even kill him.

On March 12th the bill passed; Chief Justice Ryan survived.

The next two years were difficult. I was sick, in constant pain, told by doctors in New York that I had an ovarian tumor that must be removed. But I could not take the time for myself. Both Father and Mother were very sick. Mother began to act so strangely that we finally had to admit her to a mental hospital, and not long after that Father passed away.

But at last I allowed myself to to travel to New York City have surgery. It was very difficult. I spent weeks recovering, and at one point weighed no more than 88 pounds. All this, and then Mother passed away.

Slowly I regained my strength. I attended the Woman’s Congress in Providence, Rhode Island, and gave speeches supporting women’s suffrage.

When I returned to Janesville, I settled my parents’ estate, and resumed my work. While I had been away my friend Kate Kane had become Wisconsin’s second woman lawyer, and soon after that Angie King became the third. I invited King to join me, and we became the first all-female law firm in the state.

In 1878 we took on an case involving a Janesville man who had often been in trouble. Tom Ingalls was accused of stealing from a tailor’s shop. The tailor had locked up for the night, and someone used a razor to cut a hole in the glass of the shop window, just large enough for a man to put his arm through. The burglar opened the window and stole about a hundred dollars worth of clothing. Tom claimed he had spent the night of the burglary drinking, too inebriated to cut such neat hole. I argued that Ingalls was too physically and mentally impaired to have committed the act as it was done. The jury disagreed and Ingalls was convicted by Judge Conger. We appealed the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

I applied once again for the right to practice before the supreme court. This time I had Wisconsin law on my side. On June 18th I was finally admitted to practice . The court’s vote was 2-1, with Justice Ryan objecting. All summer and that fall we worked on the case, and in the end the court overturned Judge Conger’s decision. Victory was sweet.

But sometimes even sweet things can turn sour. Angela King and I dissolved our law partnership, and my cancer returned. I wanted to continue on, but finally no spa visit or nursing care could relieve my pain. On March 31, 1880, when I was forty years old, I was released from this life.

At the time I wished God had granted me more time, because there was much I still wanted to accomplish. Articles to write, lawsuits to run, and a world to generally straighten out. But none of us can say when our time on earth will end. Looking at what has been accomplished since 1880, I see that my efforts to change the way prisoners are treated, my articles and speeches and letter writing on behalf of women and the poor, all contributed to reform. I know that my fight to practice law before the supreme court effectively opened up the legal profession to Wisconsin women. For all these reasons, today I feel satisfied by my efforts.


Sharon said...

This is fascinating Sherry. I'm sure it will be well received. What courage for her to follow her trailblazing path, despite the obstacles and community disapproval. Thanks for sharing it!

Anonymous said...


Torts said...

A very clever (and moving!) speech. I'm sure it will be even better presented in person.

I've been a fan of your blog for awhile; I even stole your idea of doing a poem every Sunday (giving your blog credit, of course). Keep up the good blogging!

Rayne said...

This is so well written. You've brought her back to life for me.
Such an amazing woman to accomplish so much in such a short time and to do all this during an era when it was acceptable to treat women as little more than property.