Stories that Study the Past

People have worked for thousands of years to make lives in Wisconsin. The legacy of their efforts profoundly shapes Wisconsin today. Read stories of our rich history. How did the people who came before us work to build a home here, drawing on their culture, beliefs, and skills while adapting to this special place? 

Lavinia Goodell:
Dedicated to Public Service

Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson warms up the standing-room-only crowd before a reading of "Lavinia."

Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson warms up the standing-room-only crowd before a reading of “Lavinia.”

Ask a little girl today what she wants to be when she grows up and you will get a range of answers. In the 1840s, when Lavinia Goodell was growing up, the choices for paid employment for women were far more limited.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson is inspired by the story of Lavinia Goodell, who she feels is an enormously important figure in our state’s history.  “She was called ‘Sister-in-Law’ by Wisconsin Assembly Speaker John Cassoday, who helped Ms. Goodell in her difficult and ultimately successful fight to open the practice of law to women in Wisconsin. Mr. Cassoday went on to become Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and, although a century separates Chief Justice Cassoday’s service from my own, I too think of Lavinia Goodell as a sister-in-law. Her portrait is prominently displayed in my office.”

Childhood Aspirations

“I think of Lavinia Goodell as a sister-in-law. Her portrait is prominently displayed in my office.”

Lavinia was exposed to ideas about social change as a child. Her parents were prominent abolitionists in New York. They also advocated for temperance and women’s rights. Lavinia worked for her father’s newspaper and for Harper’s Magazine before she moved to Janesville in 1871, where she started studying law on her own. The typical course of study at the time would have been to start by clerking in a law office, but Lavinia could find no one to hire her.

“Lavinia Goodell didn’t become the first ‘lady lawyer’ to be admitted to the bar in Wisconsin to make history. She became what she became because she wanted to make a difference,” wrote Betty Diamond in the Playwright’s Notes of her well-researched play called “Lavinia.”

Using the Humanities to Inspire

“She was a woman who wanted to be able to use her gifts to the fullest degree possible.”

Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, the State Court’s Office, and several notable professors of women’s studies brought this story to the Wisconsin Humanities Council for grant funding in 2012. Initially, the WHC funded Ms. Diamond’s research and writing of the play, then with a second grant in 2014, the performance of the play throughout Wisconsin called “Lavinia.”

In the playbill notes, Ms. Diamond explains that Lavinia came from a family dedicated to public service. Diamond’s research revealed that Lavinia followed her own impulse to find work that was not only meaningful and challenging, but also for the public good. “When I read her letters and diaries, I came away moved. I was impressed by what she accomplished, but I was moved by who she was. She was a woman who desired to serve, but perhaps more importantly, more humanly, she was also just a woman who wanted to be able to use her gifts to the fullest degree possible, and if that meant taking on the patriarchy, well, then that’s what it meant.”

 Photo: Provided by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.