“Miss Goodell is a person of rather a singular character.”

Written by a friend of Lavinia Goodell, May 9, 1866

When she died in 1880, Lavinia Goodell left behind hundreds of letters, multiple diaries, and many published articles which provide insight into her character and personality, but how did the people closest to her view her? Fortunately the William Goodell Family Papers in the Special Collections and Archives at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky provide firsthand descriptions of Lavinia as a young woman. Maria Goodell Frost wrote a lengthy unpublished biography of her sister.

Maria Goodell Frost

While highly complimentary of its subject, to be frank, parts of that work come across as a bit stilted and hard to read. But the Goodell Family Papers also contain a brief three page biography in which Maria succinctly summed up her sister’s character:

Lavinia inherited the logical traits of her father and the keen sprightly wit and quick perceptions of the Cadys. This combination fitted her by nature for her chosen profession of law, in which she distinguished herself. The friends of William Goodell loudly lamented that Lavinia was not a boy that she might succeed her father as a philanthropist. She was often told that she ought to have been a boy, which obligation exceedingly amused her, and she failed to perceive why being a girl she could not also be a philanthropist and do some good in the world. 

Maria Frost’s comments about her sister

A talent for writing ran in the Goodell family. Lavinia’s father was a prolific writer, and Maria was also a published author. Lavinia had little formal education until the family moved to Brooklyn in 1853, but as soon as she enrolled in school, the teenager began to excel at composition. In 1854, Lavinia’s father wrote to Maria, “Lavinia is much engaged in her studies. Her weekly compositions are marked, at school, ‘No.1.’ She really has a considerable tact at writing. Mother says, ‘My girls are both Goodells!’”

William Goodell’s comments about 14 year old Lavinia in 1854

The Goodell Family Archive also contains an interesting character sketch of Lavinia, evidently written by a friend named Miss Permin in 1866. Titled “Observations on the Character of Miss Lavinia Goodell,” the friend wrote:

Miss Goodell is a person of rather a singular character. The peculiar circumstances and influences which have probably commended her since her childhood have undoubtedly done much to shape her mind as it is. She seems to me to be one of that class of women who find little to please them in the opposite sex; who feel themselves considered the acknowledged inferior of man, in fact oppressed and not respected for what they are worth.

You are very literary and even politically inclined perhaps. You are also very sensitive and a person of very refined feelings; excellent taste and very lively imagination, well possessing considerable love of the beautiful in nature and art. You seem to prefer that which has rather the charm of simplicity than grandeur. You, in fact, dislike outward forms and observances and of the rigorous code of society.

You would like to occupy a high literary position, if easily obtained, but the feeling of so being is not sufficiently strong to influence you toward its successful attainment.

You have considerable perseverance but you are apt to weary. You lack one essential element … and that is power. With that largely developed, you would be amazed at the change it would provide in your life.

We have no information about the woman who wrote the sketch or why it was written. (Lavinia was teaching in a home school in Brooklyn at the time. Read about her experience here, here, and here.) It seems likely the author knew Lavinia quite well since she accurately described Lavinia’s literary tendencies, her perseverance, her indifference toward conforming to societal norms that did not suit her, and most of all – as Maria also noted – her strong lifelong belief that she was in no way inferior to men. It was precisely these traits that enabled her to become Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer. And by becoming a lawyer, Lavinia did attain some degree of power and influence, and for the remaining six years of her life she used those attributes to help the less fortunate members of society.

Sources consulted: William Goodell’s letter to Maria Goodell Frost (November 4, 1854); “Observations on the Character of Miss Lavinia Goodell,” May 9, 1866;  Undated brief biography of Lavinia Goodell written by Maria Goodell Frost.

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